A Brief and Entertaining History of Email


Here at MailPoet, we love email (naturally!) We eat bounces for breakfast, lists for lunch, and DomainKeys for dinner. We even name our kids after email technologies (no, not really…yet.) As you can imagine, we’re interested in the history of email, too.

As a MailPoet user, you’re no doubt familiar with the ins-and-outs of email. But do you know where email came from? And who invented it? In this post, we’ll briefly cover some of the major events in the history of email.

Murky beginnings

The early history of email is a little confusing. Why?

For one, what exactly is an email? Early email systems consisted essentially of static text files on a mainframe computer, a far cry from the complex HTML emails of 2017. As a result, it can be difficult to pin down exactly when email was created.

Secondly, there were various organizations and groups working on their own separate networks. Perhaps the most well-known early network was ARPANET, which was initially developed and funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. ARPANET was an early form of the Internet and most historians consider its messaging system to be the first form of email.

So, who invented email?

Ray Tomlinson, a programmer working on ARPANET for a defense contractor, is credited with sending the first email message in 1971. Tomlinson has said that he preferred “Email” over “E-mail”, as he was “simply trying to conserve the world’s supply of hyphens,” so we will thus call him the “Inventor of Email” (and not “E-mail.”) Sadly, Tomlinson passed away in 2016.

The first email

Tomlinson’s first message was just a test and funnily enough, he actually did not remember what it said. When asked, he replied,

[These early] test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them.

In addition to inventing email, Tomlinson was the first to use the @ symbol for messaging, which allowed emails to be sent to computers on different hosts. Prior to this, messages could only be sent to different users on the same computer.

Now, let’s zoom ahead to the early 1990s.

Email for everyone!

Starting in the early nineties, many ISPs, universities, and large corporations began to offer email accounts to their members. At the same time, companies like Lycos, Yahoo, and Hotmail began to offer paid or ad-supported free email accounts to anyone. Nearly two decades later, the email landscape is still essentially the same.

Spam arrives

Alas, all good things must eventually be abused. The first spam email was sent in 1978, but it wasn’t until 1994 that evil became organized. In 1994, two lawyers from Arizona decided to spam newsgroups with an advertisement for their immigration services.

Strangely enough, they didn’t deny that they were spammers and they didn’t try to hide their identities. Instead, they proudly advertised their new “marketing method” and even wrote a book about it! Luckily for email inboxes everywhere, no one bought the book.

A fun fact: the term “spam” (to mean an unwanted message) is originally derived from a 1970 sketch of the BBC television show Monty Python. Watch the skit on YouTube.

The future of email

That’s the history of email, but what’s in store next? Over the past decade, many people have predicted the end of email, whether from Google Wave, Slack or social media. Nonetheless, email soldiers on. The simplicity and ubiquity of email will keep it around for years to come.