Deafnet, a nationally used telecommunications system for the deaf designed by SRI, began as an attempt by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) to bring awareness to the deaf population of the advantages of electronic mail. Ultimately, it would reach beyond that goal to one of introducing pilot email systems to be operated by deaf organizations and individuals themselves.
Funded in 1978, the SRI project first built a demonstration system that was installed at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation’s university for the deaf. The email software was a modified version of that in use on the Department of Defense’s ARPANET, on which SRI received the very first logon in 1969. The network and email coverage expanded to include mail hosts at Boston and SRI as early as September 1979.
To have the email service succeed in the deaf community, it was considered essential for the businesses to be owned and operated by deaf people. Under HEW sponsorship, SRI assembled systems for nine metropolitan areas around the country in a dissemination phase. While this phase was less successful than the demonstration project for several reasons, Deafnet created awareness within the deaf community of emerging new technologies from which they would benefit.