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History of Email

Yash Gode May 10, 2019
If we try to look at the history of email, we need to go back to the era before ARPANET, the grandpa of Internet, came into existence. Let's turn back the clock, and take a brief look at the development of email communication.
Electronic mail, known commonly by its abbreviation 'email', is probably the most used medium of communication today. 50 years ago, had someone said that it would be possible to instantly deliver documents to a recipient sitting half way across the globe, he would have been a laughingstock.
However, email came, saw, and conquered the world wide web. Today, it offers so much more than just written text communication. Its ability to securely forward multimedia, photos, software, etc., has made it a popular choice.
It's rightly said that 'necessity is the mother of all inventions', and we humans have always found a way whenever the need arose. The history of email communication is very interesting and intriguing. Let's go back to the days when the Cold War was at its peak.

An Overview of the History of Email

Following the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Pentagon initiated a program to design a network whose main aim was to withstand a nuclear attack. Though, the Pentagon insisted that this was not a military program and gave it a scientific angle.
This network came to be known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network or ARPANET, after the program's completion by 1969. Evolution of email is said to have started much earlier than ARPANET, though.
In 1965, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was the first to demonstrate the use of an email system, known as MAILBOX. This was before the Internet came into existence and therefore, this system was used to send messages to different users on the same computer.
In 1971, Ray Tomlinson, a former MIT student, was working on the TENEX operating system for BBN technologies, as an ARPANET contractor. While using a local email program called SNDMSG, Tomlinson created the first email application when he patched a program called CPYNET to the existing SNDMSG.
This introduced the capability to copy files through a network and Ray notified his colleagues by sending them the first email. It's said that the first message sent by Ray was 'QWERTYUIOP', which is formed by the entire first row characters of a standard keyboard.
The history of email addresses can also be attributed to Tomlinson. He chose the '@' symbol to provide an addressing standard in the form of "user@host", which is in use till date. This is why Tomlinson is called the 'father of email' and is credited with its invention.
By 1974, email in its improved form was being used by the US military and became the savior of ARPANET, who's importance was continuously declining. From here on, things developed at a brisk pace. By 1975, efforts to organize the email bore fruit. A general operating area, known as email account, for a user who wants to avail this service, was created.
Access controlling was done by giving the user a secret password, which only he/she would know. Separate folders were created depending on the purpose. Inbox for incoming messages, outbox for outgoing messages, etc.
Year 1976 was a watershed year in the history of email marketing. Services were being offered in commercial packages and per-minute charges were applicable to those using these services.
This led to the requirement for offline reading, which meant that users could now download their emails on to their personal computers, and then read them leisurely without using and paying for the airtime. This led to the development of applications, which were similar to what Microsoft Outlook can do today.
Requirement for protocols was felt almost immediately, and in 1972, file transfer protocol (FTP) was put in use to send email messages. The main drawback here was that FTP created a separate mail for every recipient and then dispatched it, which resulted in loss of precious memory space.
This prompted the creation of the more efficient SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) in the early 1980s, which became a standard protocol to be used in sending email messages. However, the initial versions of SMTP failed to control the cases of forgery and it proved to be a naive protocol in the verification of the authenticity of a user.
Viruses, worms and spammers began exploiting these loopholes in SMTP. Even though, many new and improved versions have been released, this problem continues till date. If SMTP is used to send messages, POP (post office protocol) was a standard for receiving emails. This protocol is used by clients to retrieve messages from the mail server using a connection.
Currently, the third version, namely POP3 is in use. One drawback of POP is that it does not support offline retrieval of messages. This demerit has now been overcome, by the more capable IMAP (Internet message access protocol).

History of Spam

Talking of emails, we cannot do without mentioning spam or bulk mail or commercial mail. With more than 45% of emails sent around the world being spam, it's very important to know the background of spam.
Most of us think that spam is quite a recent phenomenon, but you will be surprised to know that the earliest documented spam was sent way back on May 3rd, 1978, by a DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) employee using the SNDMSG application.
He sent a marketing proposal to almost 400 ARPANET users, but the message was received by only 320 addresses, as that was the addressee limit of the application. Today, email spam is at its worst, with about 14.5 billion spam mails being sent a day.
There's so much more about the origin and timeline of email, but these were the most important landmark events. Looking at its current usage, we can only add that instant messaging via email is here to stay!