Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of quarter-inch tapes

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There's an often cited quote, usually expressed as "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tape" (somtimes as "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway") that's attributed to Andrew Tanenbaum although sometimes to a Warren Jackson (Director, Computer Science University of Toronto).


The quote is in reference to a notion that in the early days of Usenet, the newsfeed (which was delivered via UUCP) to Australia had to be airmailed weekly since there was no connection between continents (the founder of Uunet for a while maintained the only connection between North American and Europe). Tapes were loaded into a station wagon, driven to the airport, and then flown to Australia.


This prompted someone, probably Andrew Tanenbaum as he's well known for his wit, to make the observation that a station wagon has a lot of bandwidth. (It's been said the quote appears in Andrew Tanenbaum's book Computer Networks, Editions 1-3 from Prentice-Hall, 1988.)


It's all sort of cute, but there's one problem. Australia never, in fact, got a regular newsfeed by mag tape.


The first Usenet connection between Australia and North America was in 1981. It was set up between the University of Waterloo and the University of Sydney. However, the connection was unstable. Eventually in 1983 Robert Elz at Melbourne University set up a stable feed on a machine called "munnari". That acted as the gateway for the rest of Australia.


So where did the story about the station wagon and mag tape come from?


As Elz explains it he used to dial-in from Australia to an account at Berkeley. Interesting news he would save on his account there. From time to time he had tapes of his saved news mailed to him. This was probably the genesis of the weekly station wagons full of tape story.

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