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The First Email

Email is by far and away the most popular application on the internet. Just about everyone uses email, and generally people use it all of the time. Some users may send one or two messages a week, others dozens, and some, like me, send and receive thousands. 

It all began in 1968 with a company called Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN). This firm was hired by the United States Defense Department to create something called the ARPANET, which later became the internet. ARPANET stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, and it's purpose was to create a method that military and educational institutions could communicate with each other.

In 1971, an engineer named Ray Tomlinson was assigned to a project called SNDMSG. This program was not new, in fact it had existed for a number of years. By today's standards it was more than primitive. All it did was allow users on the same machine to send messages to each other. Users could create text files which would then be delivered to mailboxes on the same machine.

A mailbox was simply a text file which could have additional text added to the end. Data could be added, but not deleted or changed. The name of the mailbox was the name of the text file. 

Ray was assigned to make this simple application do a little bit more. As it turned out, he had been working on something called CYPNET, which was intended to transfer files between computers within the ARPANET. "The idea occurred to me that CYPNET could append material to a mailbox file as readily as SNDMSG could," said Ray.

So he modified CYPNET to perform one additional task - to append to a file. This was pretty simple and the change was quickly made.

After that, Ray made a decision which changed history. He created the format of the email address. He defined it as a mailbox name, the @ sign, and the machine's node name. He used the @ sign because "it seemed to make sense. I used the @ sign to indicate that the user was 'at' some other host rather than being local."

He sent himself a message, the contents of which have been lost in time. The first email message was unceremoniously sent between two PDP-10 nodes of the ARPANET network. History had been made.

Email usage grew quickly. In fact, a study two years later found that 75% of all ARPANET traffic was email.

One of the first big email programs available to the general public (at least the first major one to catch on) is Eudora. This email client was first written in 1988 by Steve Dorner. At the time he was an employee at the University of Illinois.

Eudora was named for the now deceased Eudora Welty, an author from America. Eudora was the first email client which provided a graphic interface. It was free when it first came out, although once it was purchased by Qualcomm in 1994 it became a professional product.

Like most applications on the web, Eudora was king for a few years, then quickly supplanted by the email clients that came with Netscape and Internet Explorer. Both email clients became popular not because they were better than Eudora, but because they were provided for free with the web browser.

According to a recent report by Forrester Research, more than half of all Americans use email for an average of half an hour each day. They claim a total of 87 million Americans are active email users.


Unless otherwise noted, all photos and text is Copyright © Richard G Lowe, Jr.