Student Life

We’ve Got Mail!

Photo: Jeff Miller

Travel back with us now into the shadows of ancient history, to the year A.D. 1993. That fall, the UW took a great leap forward in terms of communication, when, for the first time, the university offered all students email accounts.

We’re not sure how students communicated before this. Legend says that they used smoke signals, or perhaps they beat out coded rhythms on drums made of dinosaur hide. Or maybe it just feels that way — it’s difficult to imagine a time when the @ symbol was one of the least-used keys on the board.

Email wasn’t exactly new in 1993. The Madison Academic Computing Center (one of the forerunner organizations of today’s Division of Information Technology) began supporting a few accounts as early as 1978. But it wasn’t until ’93 that email became a general perk. And while not all Badgers took advantage right away, about a quarter of the student body (around 9,500 people) had signed up by December. That was enough to occupy a pool of modems using 200 telephone lines. In January 1994, the service was extended to faculty and staff, and campus hasn’t looked back.

You may think: big deal. Students text nowadays, so isn’t email old hat? But email remains a primary method of communication for students and faculty. The UW’s wiscmail server processes 2 million messages a day and supports 100,000 active accounts. In addition, the university’s Learn@UW online support system helps 2,000 instructors to manage online course content every semester. The Wisconsin Experience is increasingly an online experience, and it all started with email.

The photo above was taken in 1996 in Bradley Hall, and it shows Carrie Johnson ’99, Alisha White ’99, and Heather Hazelwood ’00, JD’11 waiting their turn to check email. Their posture indicates that, then as now, the arrival of a message in any format is exciting.

Published in the Summer 2013 issue


  • Jeff Lanphear July 16, 2013

    ’86-’90 I was working @ WESTON LIBRARY w/in UW-Hospital…at the dawn of electronic communications…When Campus said we could all have email addresses for work, I was denied. When I persevered, our Director said “fine, you can indeed be assigned an email address but you can’t use our modem.” Ah, those were the days…..


  • Ethan July 16, 2013

    It’s so strange to see my freshman year house fellow in a “historical photo”! The time has passed so quickly. That’s only a year before I lived in Bradley – did we really live in black and white back then?

  • Jess Anderson July 16, 2013

    I got tapped to assemble and lead the team that created WiscMail in 1993. It was a crazy time for us: buying,installing and testing a pool of modems; creating software and documentation to run on a variety hardware configurations under DOS, Mac, and Windows operating systems; testing that software on a wide variety of hardware platforms; recruiting, training and equipping a 24×7 Help Desk staff. The goal was to have it working the first day of fall semester classes. It was a very close call: the day before, still not working; the day of, it worked. Less than 60 days for the whole project. There was an unbelievable amount of good luck involved, and no small degree of dedication, above and beyond the call, for the team.

  • Leah Castillo Ryznar July 18, 2013

    This launched in the fall of my freshman year. I remember calling friends back home and saying, “There’s this thing on the computer where you can type messages to each other!” Not quite getting how it worked, we initially thought we needed to be on our computers at the same time for it to work. Cave man instant messaging!

  • Susan Boettcher July 18, 2013

    I got an email account in 1991 — because I’d had one at my undergrad university. I was a grad student and the doctoral advisor had to sign a form stating that it was required for research purposes. My doctoral adviser didn’t even have one at that time!

  • Jay Kimmey July 18, 2013

    I remember going to the computer lab that fall (imagine actually having to go to the computer lab!) and hearing that delightful the Eudora new mail sound constantly bouncing around the room. I have been trying to find the Eudora sound for years, but without luck…

  • Amy July 26, 2013

    Ha, I remember the first time I checked email at Memorial Library, where I was working in the Microfilm division and in the grad program at SLIS.

  • Stephan S. Cowan December 7, 2013

    I really loved that ‘Eudora new mail’ sound, I believe it is similar to the Ren & Stimpy ‘Log’ song.

    Just yesterday I found it back on the page
    Using the .wav wave file as ringtone on my cell was a piece of cake, makes me smile everytime I hear it. While there, I picked up the Mirabilis ICQ ‘uhow’ sound as well.. sweet memories

    Also seems to have a mirror of
    where it can also be found.

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