The first email message: 52 years of email

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-two years ago, although one feature would still be recognizable to today’s users – the now ubiquitous @ symbol, whose use is also credited to Tomlinson.
Woman in dark café reading email on laptop
In the last 52 years email has become part of our personal and professional lives

History of 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). His message-sending protocol made it possible for one person to write to a specific other person on a different computer within that network.

Some features of his original message system 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.

What was the first email sent?

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

This is because he 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.”

Who was Ray Tomlinson?

Born in New York in 1941, Raymond “Ray” Tomlinson earned his B.Sc. in electrical engineering and went on to a master’s degree in the same field from MIT. Two years after completing his studies he joined BBN, where among other projects he worked on developing the ARPANET protocol. It was in this context that he developed a way to send a person-to-person message within that network in 1971 – in essence creating the first email. Tomlinson continued to work as a scientist at BBN, later Raytheon Co., until his death in 2016. A company spokesman described him as “humble and modest” and added that “[developing email] wasn't an assignment at all, he was just fooling around; he was looking for something to do with ARPANET.” In addition to many awards honoring his contributions to the field, he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012.
 
Raymond Tomlinson holding a microphone
Raymond Tomlinson was inducted to the Internet Hall of Fame on April 23, 2012 at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland
 

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.

When did email become popular?

It wasn’t until the 1990s, when widespread internet use boomed, that email really caught on as widespread channel of communication for business and private use. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, email was mostly limited to communications within a specific network, like a company or a research network. Microsoft released the first commercially available email, MS Mail (the ancestor of Outlook) in 1988. Then in 1989, CompuServe became the first service provider to offer dial-up internet connections, and its services included a proprietary email program that let users send each other emails via the internet. AOL and Delphi started offering their own email services in the early 1990s. They were soon followed by the first versions of entirely web-based email, which did not require a specific software for sending and receiving emails. As one of the early web-based email providers, mail.com was founded in 1995.

How old are spam emails?

It seems like somebody always finds a way to spoil a good thing, and email was no exception. Just seven years after the invention of email, the first unsolicited commercial email was sent to ARPANET users by Gary Thurek. An employee of Digital Equipment Corporation, Thurek sent the first-ever marketing email promoting one of his company’s new products – and claimed that it resulted in USD 13 million in sales. It was not until the 1990s that email spam spread to become a widespread problem. The dubious honor of the first mass spam message is usually attributed to two lawyers from Phoenix, Laurence Carter, and Martha Siegel, who flooded Usenet newsgroups with advertisements for their Green Card Lottery services.

Email today

Despite having celebrated 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. Email is also an integral part of many digital services, with an email address needed to register a username or to log in. And although Ray Tomlinson is unfortunately no longer alive to share his thoughts on the 52nd 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 found these email facts interesting! And if you still don’t have an email account with mail.com, you can sign up for free here.

This article first appeared on May 25, 2021 and was updated on May 25, 2023.

Images: Pavel Danilyuk via Pexels / Internet Society via Youtube


 

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