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Tales In Tech History: Email

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Email was invented before the Internet arrived, with early versions being used more than fifty years ago

Email is nowadays regarded as the most important and widely used communications medium on the internet, and it heralded the end of physically writing letters, especially to people or organisations based overseas.

It also played a role in the downfall of the humble telex and then fax machine.

email-iconEvolving System

Some feel that email was devised as an early messaging application for Arpanet, the precursor to the modern Internet. That is true to certain extend, but in reality electronic messaging was in existence long before the arrival of that network.

For example, the AUTODIN (Automatic Digital Network) network in the United States became operational in 1962, and it provided a message service between 1,350 terminals for the United States Department of Defense, handling 30 million messages per month.

Then in 1965 MIT created its CTSS MAIL System, which allowed users of MIT computers to leave messages at the university for other users, who would see the messages the next time they logged on to the computer. Just like leaving a note on someone’s desk.

These old mailing systems were only typically able to send messages to various users of the same computer or network. But something had to change when computers began talking to each other across different works.

Essentially, the electronic message needed to be inserted into a digital envelope, addressed to the right recipient, and then posted to them.

Enter Ray Tomlinson, who is widely regarded as the inventor of email. Tomlinson created the first inter-network messaging system in 1971 while working for Bolt Beranek and Newman (now Raytheon BBN Technologies), where he helped develop the TENEX operating system and Arpanet.

Arpanet System

The US Department of Defence had in 1969 created Arpanet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which was a network connecting numerous computers across the department for the purpose of communication.

In October 1969 the first message was sent from one computer to computer on Arpanet. But Ray Tomlinson in 1971 invented and developed Arpanet’s networked email system, which was an email system as we know it today. His system proved very popular and by 1974 there were hundreds of military users of email.

This is because Tomlinson’s system decided to use the ‘@’ symbol to allow users to send messages from one network to another. Tomlinson’s invention thus distinguished local recipients and addresses on other networks and this has remained standard ever since.

Tomlinson died in March this year aged 74 following a reported heart attack, but before his death he did say that he doesn’t remember what was said in the world’s first ever email because the text was just “gibberish” written for the purposes of testing, or sections from the Gettysburg address.

And it should be noted that email continued to evolve over time. Larry Roberts for example invented some email folders for his boss so he could sort his mail. Then in 1975 John Vittal developed some software to organise email.

Commercial email systems began to appear in the 1980s, with one of the best known being Eudora (circa 1988). Not long after Pegasus mail appeared.

And email continued to evolve. One of the first email standards was SMTP (simple message transfer protocol). SMTP is simple and indeed is still in use today, but it does have its limitations. New email standards such as POP (Post Office Protocol) are also increasingly used.

Email certainly changed how the world communicated, and it remains one of the principle communication mediums the world over.

Quiz: How well do you know the language of the Internet?