When the first personal computers started being sold by Apple and IBM in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was common for people to ask: “Why do you really need to buy a PC?”
The truth was, if you had a typewriter, that’s pretty much all you needed to create documents. If you wanted to play video games, you’d go down to the mall. If you needed to do math problems, you got a calculator.
Back then, everybody existed in what we now call data silos. People did home finances on PCs, wrote documents and printed them out, and played a few simple games. Few computers were connected, and those that were invariably belonged to high-security government agencies such as the military or corporate enterprises doing business with government that had access to central mainframe computers.
Ethernet networking was invented in the 1970s, and IBM introduced Token Ring networking in the 1980s. But few enterprises had good business reasons to install Local Area Networks (LANs) before the mid-1980s, when personal computers became common in corporate offices.
In 1982, IBM introduced PROFS, for Professional Office SystemVM, which ran on IBM mainframes and some of its midrange computer systems and included an email application. For Digital Equipment Corp. minicomputer systems, email service was provided through the company’s All-In-1 office productivity package.
In the early days, before the development of PCs, there were no readily available desktop software applications that could be used to send messages from one person’s desktop computer to another outside of those internal wired networks. But that situation would soon change in the mid-1980s when many enterprises started to rapidly install and expand LANs.
Popular LAN email packages that emerged in this period included Microsoft Mail, which would eventually become part of the Microsoft Office suite, along with Word Perfect Office, cc:Mail, Banyan Vines and eventually Lotus Notes.
Email Was Simple, and It Worked
So how did electronic mail, which two generations after it first appeared is still considered the No. 1 killer app in the computer business, get started? Easy: It was simple, and it worked—well, most of the time. Email still has hiccups today, but not very often. NetHistory.info explains it this way:
“Email is much older than ARPANet or the Internet. It was never invented; it evolved from very simple beginnings. Early email was just a small advance on what we know these days as a file directory; it just put a message in another user’s directory in a spot where they could see it when they logged in. Simple as that. Just like leaving a note on someone’s desk.”
In 2012, it was estimated there were more than 3 billion email accounts in the world, and that about 294 billion emails were sent per day. Roughly 78 percent of those were spam.
30 Years Ago: How Email Rose to Become the No. 1 Killer App
Messaging from smartphones and other computers is replacing email among many younger users, but email is still by far the No. 1 “killer app” for businesses. And it probably will remain No. 1 for a long time to come.
But how did we get to this point in a scant two generations? As with many of the computer technologies we take for granted, email began with a few early experiments at research centers during the -960s.
First In-House Email Was Sent in 1965
Most likely the first email system of this type was sent from Mailbox, an application used internally at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1965. Another early program to send messages on the same computer was called SNDMSG.
From those first in-house messages, electronic mail evolved with these key milestones, as researched by Outlook.com and published by Mashable in 2012:
1971: U.S. programmer Raymond Tomlinson allegedly sent “QWERTYUIOP” as the first network email, and he was the first to connect his computer to his mailbox by using an “@” symbol. This also was an in-house email that traveled through a single system.
1977: Tomlinson’s emailing method worked for networked computers using the same software, but many people began using the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPA) to connect outside networks.
1981: The American Standard Code for Information Interchange adopted a process of letters, punctuation and symbols to digitally store information.
1985: Government and military employees, students and academic professionals were common email users by the mid-1980s.
1991: ISPs allow widespread Internet access, but there were limited options for use until Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1991.
In 1998, more people signed up for free email accounts on sites such as email.com, Yahoo.com, Excite.com, Hotmail.com and others than all other years previous. Now most people have multiple email accounts. They may have one hosted by a Web service, such as Google (Gmail), Yahoo, AOL or Microsoft; another at their home network, hosted by a telecom or cable television provider; and another on a mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet.
By the way, “spam” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1998 after its growth in the mid-1990s—not to be confused with the 3.8 cans of spam consumed every second in the United States.
Key Moment in IT History: Email Sent Over the Internet
A key moment in email history came on Nov. 22, 1977, when the first email sent through the then-unnamed “Internet” took place in the foothills near Stanford University, in Portola Valley, Calif.
This event was recalled by eWEEK in November 2007, when the magazine covered an event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. It was called “Major Internet Milestones: A 30th Anniversary Celebration of the First Three-Network Transmission.”
30 Years Ago: How Email Rose to Become the No. 1 Killer App
The museum is housed in a historic building of sorts; it used to serve as the executive business center for Silicon Graphics Inc., which in the 1980s and 1990s was one of the most powerful IT companies in the world.
A side note: SGI was so influential, in fact, that when newly elected President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore visited Silicon Valley soon after their inauguration in February 1993, the first media conference they held was at—you guessed it—SGI.
The 2007 CHM event was a true reunion of Internet and email superstars. On hand were about 50 of the original pioneers of the Internet, including seven of the eight project leaders. The event was at capacity—about 400 people.
The project leaders on hand were: Dr. Vint Cerf, then of DARPA and now an evangelist for Google; Don Nielson, retired from SRI International; Bob Kahn, retired from DARPA; Jim Garrett, retired from Collins Radio; Irwin Jacobs, then of Linkabit, now of Qualcomm; Pal Spilling of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment; and the lone woman on the team, Ginny Strazisar Travers, formerly of BBN.
Each had major input into enabling three computer networks to send data freely to and from each other for the first time. This is where email became the email we use today.
The transcendent event occurred on Nov. 22, 1977, when email data flowed seamlessly from a refurbished bread truck (which had been rebuilt into a mobile data relay station) on the street in the foothills to a gateway at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, then to a host at the University of Southern California (400 miles away) via London—across three types of networks: packet radio, satellite and the military’s ARPANET.
“We figured the data traveled a total of 8,800 miles as it bounced around two continents,” Cerf said.
It seemed a small event at the time, the Net pioneers recalled. No way could they know that this one seemingly insignificant test would lead to the Internet we all know and can’t live without now.
Email Started the Internet Rolling
And it was a simple email that started the whole thing rolling.
Now email is everywhere. Most major social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter and many more) use email as either a main or secondary feature.
A final factoid regarding email of which users ought to be aware: In 2011, a study found that the worst email passwords are “password” and “123456.” Others lame passwords worthy of note include “QWERTY,” “monkey” and “letmein.” The password “123456” was also found to be the most common password during a 2012 email hack.
So, if you see any of your own passwords in the preceding paragraph, you may want to think about changing it soon.