Email turns 50!

Colorful birthday hat, streamers and noisemakers rest on a white laptop

Join the party! Email celebrates its 50th birthday


It might feel like email has been with us forever, but in fact it’s just hitting middle age. The first email was sent in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson, a young engineer at the firm of Bolt, Beranek and Newman. Electronic mail looked different fifty years ago, although one feature would still be recognizable to today’s users – the now ubiquitous @ symbol, whose use is also credited to Tomlinson.

What was the first email?

In 1971 Ray Tomlinson was working with Arpanet, the internal network of the Advanced Projects Research Agency, which connected various research organizations around the United States. He was looking at “ways in which humans and computers could interact,” and wanted to find a way to send files between computers rather than just between different users on the same computer (which was already possible at the time).

When asked about his first computer-to-computer message 25 years later, he had a hard time remembering the exact date or content. What was in the first email? His recollection was a test message, something along the lines of “test 123” or “QWERTYUIOP”.

This is because Tomlinson did not fully grasp the importance of his innovation at the time – he mostly just thought it was a “neat thing to do.” Most people didn’t see the point of emails, since they had telephones to communicate directly with others. However, Tomlinson later pointed out that in 1971, “The telephone worked up to a point, but someone had to be there to receive the call… so everyone latched onto the idea that you could leave messages on the computer.”

Some features of his original message are still in use today. Tomlinson is credited with developing the use of the @ symbol, which in his early system literally showed the location of the sender. Also familiar to today’s email users:  fields for the sender, subject, date, and body of the email.

When did everyone start using “email”?

In the early days, the term used for the early computer-to-computer communications was “electronic mail message.” Merriam Webster traces the first use of the word “e-mail” to 1979, eight years after Tomlinson’s first message. And it wasn’t until the 1990s, when widespread internet use boomed, that email became a common channel of communication for business and private use. The first version of an entirely web-based email, rather than a specific software for sending and receiving emails, dates back to 1993. One of the early web-based email providers? mail.com, which was founded in 1995.

Email today

Despite celebrating its golden anniversary, email is still going strong. Even though it now has significant competition from social media platforms and messaging apps, experts say that the number of active email accounts exceeds 5.6 billion. As mail.com CEO Jan Oetjen points out, "Email has grown beyond its pure communication function." It has become the backbone of most online services, with our email addresses serving as our usernames and login credentials for many different applications.

Although Ray Tomlinson is unfortunately no longer alive to share his thoughts on the birthday of his most famous invention, we believe he would be proud. After all, as he once said in an interview, “I see email being used, by and large, exactly the way I envisioned.”

We hope you enjoyed our celebration of email on its golden anniversary. We look forward to your feedback below.

Image: 1&1/Shutterstock
 

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