by Wynn Wagner

It all started at a sysop's pizza party in Dallas.

I don't know whether you know it or not, but sysops (BBS system operators) get together and talk about users from time to time. They compare notes.

In Dallas, there was one real dweeb called Niel. This guy was bugging every sysop in town -- just being a general pest.

Somewhere between the beer and the pepperoni, Chuck Lawson suggested that he'd like to see some way for all of the sysops in town to share information about people like Niel more quickly. Chuck suggests things and whines about things. But he was most interested in conning somebody else into doing the actual work. In this case it was Jeff Rush. Jeff was busy taking notes and drawing flow charts during the pizza party. A few weeks later, he presented the sysops in Dallas with his Fidonet conferencing system, which he called Echomail.

Echomail is a conferencing system that works through the Fidonet e-mail system. Unlike "mailing lists" in the internet which also use e-mail to get forum messages from place to place, Echomail is separate from e-mail when it comes time to reading and writing messages. Echomail messages are bundled and compressed and use the Fidonet e-mail system only as a distribution system.

The sysops in Dallas started a forum called SYSOP. We talked about Niel quite a bit. Within a day or two, we created another forum called TECH to let sysops discuss hardware matters.

Within a week, a sysop in San Francisco -- Harv Neghila -- asked to be included in the distribution. Things spread out from there. A couple of weeks after Echomail had hit San Francisco, it was running coast-to-coast. I started a forum called GAYNET and another one called CLANG (to discuss the C programming language). A sysop in Los Angeles ("mikey") started a forum called BIBLE.

Today there are hundreds of Echomail conferences on almost every imaginable topic. The traffic is so heavy that Echomail now works through a "star" system -- large, strategically-placed computers that act as collection points for conferences. In some cases, Echomail traffic goes through regular internet lines to get across oceans. But unlike Usenet, access to Echomail doesn't require anything more than a BBS system and a modem.


Echomail is a "flood" or "broadcast" system. Each message contains hidden information about which systems have already received the message. Using this mechanism, each BBS system has a list of other systems to exchange messages for a particular forum.

In metropolitan areas, one system is usually designated as the entry point (or "host") for Echomail. That system makes long distance calls to pick up inbound traffic and to transmit message that originated in the metropolitan area.

An echomail message usually reaches all of the subscribing BBS systems within 24 hours after it's written.


Creating a new conference isn't as automatic as it is in Usenet. BBS systems are not automatically subscribed to new conferences. The sysop has to take explicit steps to receive a forum.

Echomail (like all Fidonet e-mail) can handle attached binary files. Usenet is exclusively text.

Opus and Echomail

Opus was the first BBS system to incorporate Echomail into the BBS itself. That made processing and distributing the messages much faster.

Today, most Fidonet BBS systems include Echomail.