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43 years old and ready for a midlife crisis – a brief history of email

On the anniversary of the platform, we take a look at email's long – but surprisingly not very storied – journey to its current daily use.

The words spoken on the first ever telephone call have deservedly gained notoriety: “Come here – I want to see you”. Spoken by Graham Bell to his assistant Thomas Watson, these words seemed to hint at the deeper relationship users were about to engage in with the technology - rather than the mere pragmatical context they were uttered in. The first words exchanged by email, however, have no such ceremony. Ray Tomlinson, the researcher at ARPANET credited with the composition of the first email in 1971, claims the text was “a test message entirely forgettable, something like 'QWERTYUIOP' or 'TESTING 1 2 3 4'”.

QWERTYUIOP illustration

This disparity in serendipity could be said to have a cause, however: in the case of the telephone, the technology was being actively developed – while email, rather than being outright invented, seems to have blossomed naturally out of the platform at the time being built. In other words, email may be the natural consequence of the Internet. Thus also the problem of pinpointing the precise origin of email, as the tool as we know it had seen many iterations in those early days of computed messaging.

The earliest form of electronic mail dates back to 1961 at the Michigan Institute of Technology (MIT). Called the Compatible Time-Sharing System, it ran on desk-sized IBM consoles and relied on dumb terminals – that is, it didn't actually send its messages anywhere other than a host mainframe. Meant to share information between users in the same workspace, the “emails” sent to the mainframe could only be retrieved by a receiver at the very same console it was sent from. Although this amounted to what was basically a post-it note on someone's desk, the need for electronic postage was emerging already.

Leave it to the military to press ahead. The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), an agency belonging to the american Department of Defense, had in their employ Ray Tomlinson, a computer engineer at the time working on the TCP/IP protocol. He was the man behind the still in function addressing format comprising of a user and a host, separated by an '@'. At the time the first email was sent, Tomlinson urged a colleague not to spread word of his work, as this wasn't “what we're supposed to be working on”.

That first email was sent from one cupboard-sized computer to another cupboard-sized computer sitting right next to it, on a dark underground office in 1971. By then only a few hundred people had access to email, and they were either students or computer science professionals. But a decade of microprocessing advances rolls around and the personal computer becomes, if not commonplace, then at least widely spread. It's during these days of command line operating systems that a preview of the World Wide Web takes place, and does so through the possibilities opened by email.

This 'preview' is, of course, Usenet – a distributed messaging system where any user could consult and add to a 'thread' by sending an email. Established in 1980 by Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, both Duke University undergrads, it was designed as a sort of replacement to an announcement system on campus. But as is now usual with what concerns the Internet, the creature grew beyond the expectations of its creators. Soon enough, with the addition of the Berkeley and North Carolina universities, the potential for long and open discussions on a plethora of topics was made evident. And, more than ever, email seemed to finally threaten to cover every aspect of our daily lives.

Usenet groups became as diverse as an encyclopedia's index. In time they were left behind in favor of new platforms on the more agile and rich World Wide Web, but email moved on. By the nineties computers were no longer restricted to the workplace or the classroom, and they no longer served us as merely a tool – we were using email with the same ease and intimacy as we used telephones. Dialing in from home, users downloaded their incoming mail, shut down the expensive connection, and proceeded to carefully read and compose replies. One more connection, and the emails were sent.

This was the golden age of email clients, and its dusk may be pinpointed to the appearance of Hotmail in 1996 – the first ever web-based email reader. The following year, the service was sold to Microsoft for a staggering sum of 400 million dollars. The industry never looked back, and the web-based email reader is now the standard.

Hotmail's 1996 homepage

Email's long history seems to shock in one particular: despite all the leaps forward in computer technology and internet potential, the way we experience email does not seem to have changed much. Could it be that this messaging system is so elegant as to require no more attuning? Could it be that web-based readers bring down customization to the lowest common denominator? Where to move forward from here? These and other questions are to be approached on upcoming posts.