On the fifth floor of the Soda Hall building on UC Berekley’s campus, there was a printer. This printer appeared like many of its siblings: a hefty beige cuboid emblazoned with the “HP” logo, stacks of empty paper under its foundation eagerly waiting to be snatched up by rollers. But this printer was different from the others.

This printer had a name. More accurately, it had an address which anyone in the world with an internet connection could access. You could connect to and you, dear reader, could print to your heart’s content from anywhere.

Was this a good idea? No, absolutely not. Any device connected to a network should be tightly controlled, in part because it’s safer, in part because it’s better to assume the people who made that device may have not been perfect in designing it and thus may be vulnerable to misuse. But not print510, which proudly stood on the internet, advertising Bonjour printing and the Laserjet protocol.

Why? Well, partly because in the halcyon days of an earlier internet, most users were decent citizens, and many of them were academics too. Networks and computers adapted to the dangerous environment of the open web exceedingly slowly. Most probably don’t remember or had difficulty parsing the technical language provided by journalists, but it was only in 2013 that Facebook forced all users to connect via encrypted connections. Before that, lots of users sent data unencrypted, which allowed software like FireSheep to steal users’ Facebook login tokens1 and impersonate them when using shared public WiFi networks.

print510 came from an earlier era. Despite being in a building staffed by some of the best computer scientists in the world, print510 was a poorly kept secret. Students used to have limits on how much they could print and most printers in the building were locked down to avoid abuse. However, this also made it harder for the staff and grad students to print things sometimes, partially due to login requirements and partially due to the layers of networks that tried to separate and secure network traffic for students, teachers, and staff. Thus, for convenience, print510 was kept on the open internet, accessible from anywhere and, importantly, available to quickly print anything you might need.

This open availability did not go unnoticed. For one, the IP addresses UC Berkeley owns are well-known as one of the early adopters of the internet. Thus, people scanned through the address range and politely asked every device “hey, are you there, and what are you?”. Intrepid internet users from around the world would stumble across print510 and print to it. But instead of printing thousands of sheets of paper filled with black rectangles to waste as much ink and paper as possible, they would send messages like “Hello from Estonia!” and so on.

I know that looking back on this bit of lore now can be seen as an indictment of the software industry’s naivete; doubtless infinite digital ink can be used to describe it as a demonstration of the privileged community that makes up the software industry and elite universities. And they’d be right.

But I take away a feeling of nostalgia for a time where it seemed people weren’t necessarily looking for the worst in each other. That there was a little box in a closet on the fifth floor of a university building, which people around the world would discover and just use it to say “hello.”

  1. not their usernames and passwords, but the browser cookie data that proved you were logged in