The first blog?

By Shaun Hendy 05/12/2009


In 1993 a physicist called John Baez started posting This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics to several usenet newsgroups. The style and regularity of John’s posts very much anticipated the modern blog, even if the web wasn’t yet world-wide, and he is, if we can apply the term retrospectively, still blogging.

Readers of soc.culture.new-zealand in the mid-90s will remember other early efforts along these lines from Russell Brown (still blogging at Public Address) and Brian Harmer. These guys kept many expats up to date on New Zealand news, sport and politics in the days before web browsers could.

My own contribution to early internet culture is that I may have sent John Baez his first piece of spam. I was reading John Baez’s posts on sci.physics early in 1993 when I was a summer student at Industrial Research Ltd, and starting to think about where I would go to do a PhD. These were the days that you applied for graduate studies by writing to Universities via snail mail. Yes, actual hand writing was involved!

I decided to speed things up – I pulled a list of 30-40 email addresses from likely sounding Universities in the USA and Canada from sci.physics, and proceeded to spam them with PhD applications. I was surprised by how many replies I received – in the early 1990s, it was probably still a novelty to get a form email from a prospective graduate student.

One person who replied was John Baez, giving me with all sorts of advice about careers in physics. In the end I did my PhD at the University of Alberta in Canada. The person who I had emailed there (who actually turned out to be a grad student) had replied with a small essay on the virtues of the physics department at the U of A. It turned out to be  good advice.

In fact, a well directed and personalised email can still be a good way to make contact with a potential PhD supervisor. However there are also now plenty of PhD spammers who email out form letters like I did – these days they probably largely get ignored.