The Odd Story of How Email Became So Damn Popular

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Email has been around for almost fifty years, and all through that time, it has transformed our daily lives — and the world of business — in a fundamental way. Few things have impacted the post-Internet world as much as email.

And even though it’s wilted slightly in the face of walled-garden social networks, it’s still a hugely important technology. According to Pew Research, only 6% of teenagers exchange email daily, but that’s still incredible when you think about it. Email still matters.

But let’s talk about it without getting bogged down in the technology. Forget the minute details of SMTP and the differences between POP3 and IMAP. What’s more interesting are the technological hurdles that email faced and how email addresses became so core to our Internet identities. Here’s the story of how email changed the world.

In the Years Before Email

In the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of personal computing was utterly unthinkable.

Computers were large machines the size of industrial refrigeration units. The only institutions who could afford to own them were large corporations, universities, and the military. This meant that the first email systems were oriented around these use cases.

Computers

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Take the Automatic Digital Network (AUTODIN), a 1958 military project that was designed by a consortium of top companies that included IBM, RCA, and Western Union. It allowed users to send messages up to 3,000 characters in length (around 280 words) to any of the 1,350 terminals on the network, mostly based in the U.S.

AUTODIN was meant to help the Air Force with their logistics. By allowing them to conveniently send messages to other Air Force locations (e.g. installations, logistics centers, and contractor sites), spare parts could be quickly acquired as needs arose. In essence, this was the first electronic mail system, though it wasn’t available to civilians.

And that’s why CTSS Mail was so important, because CTSS Mail was used by civilians. Instead of it being a military endeavor, CTSS allowed academics and researchers to communicate using a similar message-based method.

CTSS

CTSS Mail arose in 1965 out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was designed to run on the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) operating system, which itself ran on a modified IBM 7094 mainframe system. Dozens of users would book time to work on the computer, hence the “Time-Sharing” in CTSS.

In the 1960s, there was no Github or Twitter. It was hard for researchers to collaborate and communicate on the same projects and studies. But CTSS Mail made it possible for users of the same machine to leave messages for other users. As a result, it is regarded by computer historians to be the first email program available to ordinary users.

What We Take for Granted

In the years that followed AUTODIN and CTSS Mail, there were a plethora of email-like applications written to run on the various mainframe and minicomputer systems available at the time, but they all suffered from the same problem: interoperability.

Today I can write an email on my Macbook Pro to my editor working on a Windows machine in Philadelphia — and we all take that for granted. But back in the 1960s, it was essentially impossible to send an email from someone working on an IBM mainframe in New York to someone working on an NEC mainframe in Japan, largely because they lacked the distributed wide-area networks that we have today.

ARPANET

But that all changed in the 1970s with the creation of ARPANET.

Although it has long been forgotten, ARPANET was hugely important. In fact, it had a lot of commonalities with the Internet as we know it today, and it’s quite possible that we wouldn’t even have an Internet if it weren’t for ARPANET. It supported the TCP/IP protocol and it used packet switching as a way to move data between hosts. It was robust and extremely fault tolerant.

It also allowed computers to network with machines located on the other side of the country. Researchers like Ivan Sutherland (who practically invented augmented reality) could connect his PDP-10 in Utah to his colleague’s SDS Sigma 7 in Los Angeles and send messages between the two. It was revolutionary.

The Very First Email Ever Sent

Ray Tomlinson died in 2016 of a suspected heart attack. You probably don’t care because you probably don’t know who he is, but you should. His legacy will live on years into the future, all because Tomlinson is the reason why we communicate the way we do today. He changed the face of inter-personal communication.

RayTomlinson

In 1971, Tomlinson sent the first ever email over a computer network — that network being ARPANET — using a program he created called SNDMSG. We don’t know for certain what the contents were, but Tomlinson did share in an interview once that the test email said “something like QWERTYUIOP”.

It was certainly a technical milestone, but Tomlinson’s contribution was more than just technical. He’s largely credited as popularizing the use of the @ symbol, which is now a fundamental part of our modern language and culture.

BulgarianAt

He’s often erroneously credited as being the inventor of the symbol itself, but it was actually present on typewriters long before him. According to The New York Times, its use hails back to 1536, where it was used in a letter by an Italian merchant. By some estimations, it could be even older. The @ symbol even appears in a Bulgarian translation of a Greek Christian encyclical, which you can see above.

Addresses used by SNDMSG consisted of the username and the destination’s hostname, the two being separated by the now-infamous @ symbol. When the domain name system came along in the 1980s, these addresses began to resemble the email addresses we use today.

Breaking Into the Mainstream

In the years since Thompson’s invention, email has steadily progressed from being a tool used by academics to a mainstream technology used by businesses and end-users alike. It’s a communication medium that’s as ubiquitous as the telephone, and its incredible growth can largely be attributed to services like CompuServe, Hotmail, and Gmail.

In 1989, CompuServe launched its first email service. Users could connect to the Internet and share messages with other email users. It was a success despite it being an expensive proposition for most users. Access was measured by the hour: 60 minutes could cost as much as $10.

Compuserve

Back then, there was no World Wide Web (that would be invented three years later by Tim Berners Lee), so users could only connect to each other with a software email client.

Things really took off in 1996 with the launch of Hotmail. This was a free service that allowed anyone to create their own email addresses and access them through their Web browsers. It was also one of the first webmail services, and launched at the same time as RocketMail, which would later become Yahoo! Mail.

In just a year, it would attract almost 8.5 million users. That number would be impressive even now, but back in 1997, it was unheard of. Microsoft would eventually acquire Hotmail for a cool $500 million and turn it into Microsoft Outlook.

MicrosoftOutlook

Although Hotmail initially had near-market dominance, it’s wilted somewhat with the rise of Gmail, which launched in 2004. It initially was only available as a private beta, which lead to invite codes becoming a valuable commodity. There were reports of some being sold on eBay for as much as $125.

Although email has lost favor as the default communications medium of choice for consumers — thanks to the stratospheric rise of Twitter and Facebook — it remains the cornerstone of how companies do business, and both Google and Microsoft have corporate email offerings.

The Problems of Email Security

Of course, it’s hard to talk about the history of email without discussing the darker side of it. As its popularity has risen, it’s been adopted as a tool to be used by fraudsters and organized criminals.

Many of the threats have been mitigated against by many email providers. It’s now significantly harder for malware to be spread via email, thanks to the majority of email providers actively filtering out attachments based upon their file type. Most email providers are good at identifying obfuscated malware, such as those hidden as document macros, thanks to advances in heuristic analyses

GmailVirus

Despite that, email malware is still a big business. According to Virtu, there were 317 million pieces of email malware created in 2014. This, they say, represents a year-on-year increase of 26%.

Email is a chosen vehicle for scammers, too. There are different types of email scams, which vary massively. There’s phishing, for example, where a counterfeit email will try to persuade the recipient to voluntarily provide the login credentials to their online banking, Paypal, or social networking account.

Another popular email scam is the Nigerian 419 scam (also known as Advance Fee Fraud). These emails promise the victim a large sum of money, if they pay a portion of it in advance. Of course, the money never materializes, and the victim is left out of pocket.

AFFraud

Thankfully, many email programs mitigate against these common scams. Gmail, for example, will give a warning whenever it thinks someone is trying to impersonate another company over email.

While email is a popular attack vector for criminals, it’s getting less and less effective as people know more about the common email-based attacks. And it’s a small price to pay for the convenience it provides us.

Email has had a transformative effect on our lives. Do you have your own email-related story to share? Tell me about it in the comments below.

Image Credits: Ray Tomlinson (Andreau Vea), A Little Bit of History (James Cridland)

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