According to the UNC-Chapel Hill Computing History site and my own memory, UNC-Chapel Hill had a mad idea — everyone on campus would be reachable by email, even if they didn’t own a computer. My own position was that if someone wanted to use email as their preferred means of communication, it should be made as easy of possible to include addresses that would act as gateways to several distribution means — Internet, Bitnet, paper and even fax (something that my pal Carl Malamud would make real in a very broad way in a 1993 Request For Comments).

But how to make it happen?

Toby Considine then of UNC Facilities and the Mail Services and I dreamed up a way to place a small printer in the campus postal and interoffice distribution center. One could send email to conventional email addresses and with no extra effort to the printer for those who were computerless. My software would look up a physical address to match the “paper email” address and format the message for printing on NCR paper that included a little window thru which the physical address needed to deliver the message but not the message itself could be read. The paper email messages would then be taken off the printer and put in the regular mail distribution flow.

It mostly worked. One time someone, perhaps in my own office (but not me), routed an entire mainframe memory dump to a paper mail address. Luckily the alert mail room guys shut off the printer and called me. I killed the message and all was well.

December 1988: Everyone on campus has an email userid. Mail sent to an assigned userid is printed and delivered to the recipient’s office

Eventually paper email vanished. Everyone had email addresses. But there is some kind of lesson here not just for email and cobbled together network gateways and the urge to get broader solutions to communication needs.

Now if the #noemail project can find a good way to integrate the existing and emerging services that I use to manage my activity streams and interact with others, we will have learned something. I have a feeling that this will be an ongoing project of discovery and appropriation — rather than outright invention.