The History of Email

I. Introduction

The film, "You've Got Mail" was evocative of a time when e-mail was creating a revolution in the way we communicate. E-mail, or electronic mail, is now a well-established, ubiquitous method that we use to communicate in our personal and business lives. It has resulted in the near total demise of fax and letter-sending, which are falling off to the extent that the U.S. Postal Office has seen a decrease in mail volume of around 27% since its peak.

As a social animal, humans need to "talk" to each other to live our lives, do our business and make inter-personal connections. Human history has shown us that human beings will innovate around methods of communication to allow discourse across distance. In ancient times methods like smoke signals and lighted beacons were used. Later we used pigeons to send letters and later still, the development of electronic means of communication gave us the telegraph and the telephone. All of the methods we have used in the past, essentially did the same thing that e-mail does today, communicate information to another human being across distance.

The advent of the Internet gave us the next level in communication innovation. The Internet became a new conduit for us to communicate across, resulting in the development of electronic mail or e-mail. The Radicati Group, who produce a regular report on global e-mail usage, stated that in 2015 e-mail continued to grow at a steady pace, with 2.6 billion e-mail users worldwide sending and receiving over 205 billion e-mails per day. Their report predicts that by 2019, one third of the world's population will be using e-mail regularly.

The success of e-mail is down to its relative ease of use. E-mail has become almost an instinctive tool. That simple, click to create and click to send action has resulted in massive uptake of e-mail communications and the instant reaction that it can elicit has made it an irresistible way of communicating.

About this Guide:
In this guide we'll look at the world of email, from its early beginning as a simple computer messaging system to the many forms that email takes today.

We'll try to explain how email works so that you no longer need to scratch your head thinking, what just happened when you click that send button. You will learn how to make sure your email messages get to the right people, saying the right thing and at the right time. We'll also talk about the many aspects of email marketing to help you with creating effective email marketing campaigns.
As always, we will try to present technical details in an informative and entertaining fashion.


Email Account Growth Worldwide
II. The History of E-mail
The First Computer Mail

The original "e-mail" was really nothing like the e-mail we use today. The very first message that could be called an electronic mail was a simple file, copied from one computer to another and identified with, for example, a person's name. This nascent e-mail system was originally used at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the early to mid 60s. The system was developed on the Compatible Time Sharing System (CTSS) at MIT, which was used to allow multiple user access to computers in the university and across associated colleges. One of the outcomes of this multi-sharing environment was that "messages" in the form of files, could be placed in common directories so that other users could read them. It was a simple way to send a message to someone you were working with; they'd log in and see a file with their name on and read it.

Around 1965 as a natural extension of this system was the development of the programming command "CTSS mail". This would make the process of sending mail to CTSS users programmatic. Tom Van Vleck and Tim Morris took the idea outlined in a programming staff note, that suggested a new command that would allow a private message to be sent from one user to another – the original note can be found here. The original development was less about sending an electronic letter and more about informing a user that a request for a file retrieval was made.

The Next Leap Forward: ARPAnet Mail
ARPAnet or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network was the first ever network to implement the protocol TCP/IP. The initial pans for this connected network of computers was published in 1967 by MIT researcher,Lawrence Roberts. It became the underpinning protocol of the Internet, and continues to be so to this day. The protocols set out the rules for communicating across end-to-end connections. How the data is packetized, addressed, how the data is transmitted between end points and how it is received. ARPAnet, using the protocols TCP/IP, became the first wide area network that allowed packet switching. It gave rise to the Internet we know today. The researchers using ARPAnet used a simple program known as SNDMSG to leave messages for each other. However this program could only leave a message on the same computer.

In late 1969, the Stanford Research Institute was connected up to the ARPAnet and the first message was sent between two computers. However, this still wasn't like the "e-mail" we know today.

The First Ever True E-mail: QWERTYUIOP
The first electronic message that we can call "true e-mail", was sent in 1971 by computer engineer Ray Tomlinson. Ray wrote a file transfer program called CYPNET, which was an extension of the earlier SNDMSG program. The difference was that CYPNET used the TCP/IP protocols of the ARPAnet network to send messages between any computer on the network.
As part of this development, Ray defined the use of the @ symbol which designated the computer the user was at. The protocol being:


It is worth pointing out, that the electronic messages sent using ARPAnet and the earlier CTSS system were simply to convey information between other technical authorities. The productization and mass use of e-mail like we know today was still some way off.

Sorting the Mail
As we entered the 1970s, e-mail became more commonly used, but still in the context of specialist users. With greater usage came problems with message management. This problem was solved by the man who led the team that developed ARPAnet, Dr. Lawrence Roberts. In 1971, Larry Roberts created the first e-mail program that allowed users to control e-mails. The program known as "RD" allowed users to read, save, forward, delete and importantly, organize messages received.

Commercialization of E-mail
By 1973 e-mail took up around 75% of ARPAnet network activity. This was very interesting to anyone interested in the next "killer app" and was not lost on the commercial world. Two of the earliest commercial services specifically offering e-mail were CompuServe and MCI Communications Corp's, "MCI Mail". MCI Mail's first version in 1983 only allowed you to message other MCI Mail users, but this was extended to include sending e-mails to other systems as e-mail usage expanded. CompuServe's Information Service or CIS e-mail offering was introduced in 1989 and became the largest consumer information service in the world.

Off the back of the commercial e-mail services like MCI Mail and CompuServe, a number of client based e-mail programs were developed; including Lotus Express, Norton's MCI Mail utility and the short lived Microsoft Bob.

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