The 50-year history of email

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn’t have at least some idea of what email is. But did you know that the history of email dates back a full 50 years?

Believe it or not, email as we know it traces back to the 1970s. Despite its currency, and despite vague notions of email as a ‘modern’ communication tool, the technology is half a century old. Email predates the internet, the SMS, the personal computer, and the first word processing software.

So, to celebrate fifty years of email use, we look back at the path it took to get here. It all started on something called ARPANET, a precursor to the internet from 1969, used by the US Department of Defence…


•        1971: The creation of electronic mail

In 1971, Ray Tomlinson invented and developed the first electronic messaging system. This began with a file transfer program called CPYNET. Tomlinson then used code from CPYNET when adapting a time-share message program. (Aptly called SNDMSG.)

Tomlinson’s new message program enabled ARPANET users to send messages to different computers on the network.

Tomlinson has since forgotten the content of the first electronic message ever sent.

Along with the invention of electronic mail is the invention of email addresses. (And the use of the @ symbol.) So, right from the beginning, we’ve been addressing emails as ‘username’ @ ‘name of computer’.

•        1976: The first monarch to send an email

In 1976, Queen Elizabeth II became the first monarch to send an email. The heading of the message read ‘A Message from Her Majesty the Queen’. The content announced a new programming language:

“This message to all ARPANET users announces the availability on ARPANET of the Coral 66 compiler provided by the GEC 4080 computer at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment, Malvern, England. Coral 66 is the standard real-time high level language adopted by the Ministry of Defence.”

The Queen signed off the message ‘Elizabeth R’.

•        1978: First email marketing campaign sent

May of 1978 saw the first mass email ever sent. Gary Thuerk, a marketer, sent an email to 400 addresses on ARPANET, of the 2600 that existed.

It was an advertisement for the Digital Equipment Corporation. This marks the first spam message in the history of email. And, like most spam, it was negatively received.


•        1989: World wide web and lotus notes

The creation of the internet as we know it, naturally, features in the history of email. In 1989, Sir Tim Berners Lee invented the world wide web. And email would greatly benefit from it.

At the end of 1989, Lotus Development Corporation released Lotus Notes email software. 35,000 copies of the software sold in the first year of its release. IBM later bought the company in 1995, and Lotus Notes became IBM Notes.


•        1991: First email from space

Emails reached space in the 90s. In August of 1991, astronauts Shannon Lucid and James C. Adamson sent the first email to Earth from space. It read:

“Hello Earth! Greetings from the ST5-43 Crew. This is the first AppleLink from space. Having a GREAT time, wish you were here,… send cryo and RCS! Hasta la vista, baby,… we’ll be back!”

They used an Apple Macintosh Portable computer to complete this impressive entry in the history of email.

•        1992: Attaching attachments

Attachments are a core feature of email as we know it today. But until 1992, emails were only about sharing text, not files. This changed with the creation of Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME). This was the internet protocol that made email attachments possible.

•        1993: The term ‘email’

Until now, messages sent were referred to as ‘electronic mail’. But 1993 saw a shift in the public lexicon, replacing ‘electronic mail’ with the more concise ‘email’ or ‘e-mail’.

It’s a small, but not insignificant, change in the history of email.

•        1996: Hotmail and MAPS

Launched in July 1996, Hotmail is one of the first email services that wasn’t tied to a single ISP. Instead, it operated on the internet as an entirely web-based service. It earns its name from the use of the letters in “HTML”. (A nod to its online nature.) As such, Hotmail was originally styled as HoTMaiL.

1996 also saw the introduction of the Mail Abuse Prevention System, or ‘MAPS’. Introduced by Dave Rand and Paul Vixie, MAPS was an early answer to the growing scourge of spam messages. The two software developers kept a list of IP addresses which had sent out email spam or otherwise acted objectionably. This list became known as the Real-time Blackhole List (RBL). Subsequently, many used the RBL to block emails from misbehaving IP addresses.

•        1998: The term ‘spam’

1998 is the year that the term ‘spam’ (referring to messages, not meat) was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary.


•        2000: ILOVEYOU computer worm

In May 2000, a computer worm infected millions of PCs worldwide, spreading via email message. The seemingly innocent email had a subject line of “ILOVEYOU”, and came with an attachment proclaiming to be a love letter. In reality, opening the attachment activated a script that would overwrite your files and send a copy of itself to any email addresses found.

In this way, the worm spread to more than 10 million PCs. And, in doing so, the ILOVEYOU worm served to demonstrate just how widespread email had become.

•        2002: EU directive

A large part of the history of email in the early 2000s dealt with the fight against spam. For instance, in 2002, the EU released the Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive.

Part of this directive dealt with unsolicited emails. It made it illegal to send unsolicited communications for direct marketing purposes. The directive established an opt-in rule, requiring the prior consent of the recipient before sending such messages.

•        2003/2004: CAN-SPAM Act of 2003

Shortly after the EU directive came the USA’s answer to the growing proliferation of spam emails, with the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

CAN-SPAM is a backronym for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing.

The CAN-SPAM act has been largely criticised for failing to prohibit many types of email spam. And, in some cases, impeding victims of spam from seeking reparations.

•        2004: Email2DB

In 2004, we launched our own automation tool, then known as Email2DB into the market. Email2DB was an answer to ever-filling email inboxes. It processed emails and automatically updated databases, saving teams from manual data entry.

It’s here that the history of email and the history of ThinkAutomation cross paths.

•        2004: Gmail

Having started life as an internal mail system, Gmail became an invite-only beta in 2004. Over the next few years, the now popular webmail service would grow and improve, finally losing its ‘beta’ label in 2009.


•        2016/2017: Chatbots and competition

Between 2016 and 2017, we saw a rise in the hype around chatbots and automated, real-time chat. This took some of the spotlight from email, as focus shifted to real-time chat interfaces such as live chat, social media and chatrooms.

•        2018: GDPR

The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) came into effect on May 25, 2018. The legislation revolves around protecting the privacy of personal data. And that means, among other things, repercussions for inappropriate email use by organisations.

Email can embody a treasure trove of personal data. And if any of that pertains to an EU resident, that makes it subject to GDPR. This means a push for email encryption, to protect data. It means a need to review and delete unneeded emails for the right to be forgotten. And, naturally, the need for recipient consent/ the ability to opt-out of marketing emails.  

2020 onwards

These days, having an email address is a societal expectation. You need one to access service, apply for jobs, and conduct daily life. Businesses must deal with hundreds of emails a day, and there is a deluge of tools to help you manage your inbox.

Email also isn’t the only kid on the online communication block anymore. It’s forced to move over and make space for social media, live chat software and chatbots. As such, it’s widely considered to have passed its peak.

But that doesn’t mean email is dying any time soon. Rather, the history of email is set to encompass more decades and more milestones. Emails are a staple of computing and communication, and they’ll be with us a long time yet.

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