Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

What a Connection

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

What a Connection

Article excerpt

One helped develop E-mail, and the other fine-tuned the PC.

Americans' lives are easier because these guys click

Judging from national opinion polls on same-sex

marriage, many Americans seem intent

on keeping gays apart. Yet it is a gay

couple who can be credited for bringing the

entire nation--indeed the world--closer


Without the technological contributions

of Eric Allman and Kirk McKusick, a

simple day of office work, such as sending

E-mails and storing information on a

personal computer, would be much more

complicated. "There is some sort of

perverse pleasure," Allman says, "in

knowing that it's basically

impossible to send a piece of hate mail

out through the Internet without its being

touched by a gay program. That's kind of


About 15 years ago Allman was

preparing the widespread release of

Sendmail, a program that enables users to

send documents from one network to

another. A vastly improved version of

Sendmail, refined by Allman over the years,

remains the premier E-mail software used by most major

systems today. Without it, for instance,

America Online users could send mail only

to other America Online users.

McKusick's contributions are a bit more

complex but no less significant. The

Wilmington, Del., native spent most of the

1980s toiling with other programmers in a

laboratory at the University of California,

Berkeley, writing and implementing a new

computer code for Unix, the basis for the

software that now runs network computer

systems. Among the innovations created

under McKusick's leadership as project manager

at Berkeley is the computer's ability

to easily locate and recall files after they've

been saved and closed. Such elementary

tasks, taken for granted by computer users

now, were heralded as major breakthroughs

not so long ago.

Both men, who are now computer

consultants, are featured prominently in

Casting the Net: From Arpanet to Internet

and Beyond (Unix and Open Systems

Series), a history of telecommunications by

Peter Salus. In an interview with The

Advocate, Salus refers to McKusick, 44, and

Allman, 42, as a "power couple" and notes

that their impact reaches far beyond the on-line

world. "There are a lot of straight

people who have changed their opinions of

gay people because of them," says Salus,

who is straight and lives in Boston. "They

serve as a good example of a variety of


As compatible as McKusick and Allman

seem now, it was hardly love at first byte.

Back at Berkeley in 1976, when Allman

first tried to interface with McKusick about

a date, McKusick's closeted response

included a menacing look. Three years later

McKusick finally scrounged up the courage

to cope with his sexuality by attending a

gay rap session at Berkeley and found

shaggy-haired Allman tossing smug "I knew

it" grins from across the semicircle. They

bonded over a lengthy chat about

computers later that evening and began building

a relationship in which each would stake a

claim for a piece of cyberspace history.

Technology has been key to their lives.

The pair may be the only wine buffs whose

2,000-bottle collection is inventoried on-line

and who can check on the temperature

of their wine cellar from any modem in the

world. "Most people would describe us as

computer geeks," Allman admits, proudly

noting that their Web age automatically

selects a wine of the day from their list. …

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