An Underappreciated Email Pioneer: Einar Stefferud, 1930-2011

Stef in later years

Those of us who work with email every day rarely reflect on the people who created the technologies we take for granted.  Today, we should make an exception.

Not that many people will recognize the name of Einar Stefferud, but he was one of the great unsung pioneers of the Internet.  I had the privilege of working with him closely in the later stages of his career, and came to consider him first my mentor, then my partner, and then my friend.

Stef, as everyone called him, was a force behind the scenes of countless Internet innovations, but was rarely recognized as an individual innovator.  In part, that may have reflected a personality that was warm and supportive in private, but could come across as thorny and provocative in more public settings.  In the subtle jockeying for a position in history that has occupied many Internet pioneers in their later years, he was largely absent and ignored, apparently forgotten.  But he deserves to be remembered.

Stef got involved with the Internet in 1975, and soon became a player in the developing email infrastructure.  He had a credible claim to have started the very first email mailing list, and at one point he told people that they could send him email as “stef @ any machine on the ARPAnet.”  Yes, he had an account or forwarder on every machine on the Net!  I doubt anyone will ever again make that claim.

Stef was active behind the scenes on a host of standards efforts, including the ill-starred X.400 standard.  But as he soured on X.400’s complexity, he actually played a key role in defeating it, when he introduced me to Ned Freed and suggested the collaboration that became the MIME standard.  Later, he was my co-founder and key theorist in the (too) radically innovative First Virtual payment system.  In his final years, with Ed Gerck, he pursued a somewhat contrarian vision of identity and authentication on the Internet.  We may yet all come around to his way of thinking.

But what was most unique about Stef was not specific achievements such as these, but the way he would throw away every preconception and all received wisdom when he attacked a new question.   No cows were sacred to Stef, and he had no hesitation in exposing or attacking them.  Where his radical insights were palatable to the larger community, we got innovations like mailing lists and MIME, but where they were just too much for people, Stef sometimes found himself eclipsed by more conventional arguments and technologies.  Yet I’m still not entirely sure he was ever wrong.

Given Stef’s fearless fondness for a good rip-roaring argument, it’s a bit astounding that I could ever come to think of him as a friend.  Our politics were worlds apart, and we sparred constantly, but I think he rather enjoyed having a liberal foil who wasn’t a pushover.  And he was quick to dissassociate himself from the easy targets on the right who happened to share his views on some subjects, though not his powerful intellect.

Einar Stefferud was a brilliant, insightful, and warm human being whose virtues were sometimes hidden behind a somewhat argumentative exterior.  But he deserves to be remembered as one of the fathers of the Internet, and perhaps its leading contrarian thinker.  And he will be greatly missed.

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