The History of Email

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history of email

Email has been around for half a century — a bit longer, depending on what you’re willing to count as mail. The history of email has gone through a lot of changes, but it reached something very close to its current form in the nineties.

The early history

In the sixties, users sent messages to one another just by putting files into shared directories. MIT’s CTSS (Compatible Time-Sharing System) let users do this in the early sixties. The file name indicated the intended recipient. In those days, only a few people had access to computers, and they assumed that anyone who had access at all was trustworthy.

CTSS added a MAIL command in 1965, coded by Noel Morris and Tom Van Vleck. Users had to create files separately and then mail them, but they could send them to a list of recipients or everyone on a project. Mail could go only from one user to another on the same computer; the first computer network, ARPANET, was still in development. Several other mail programs emerged about the same time.

Van Vleck ported MAIL to MIT’s Multics time-sharing system in 1969. He later remarked that it “lacked privacy, authentication, and security.”

In 1968. Professor J. C. R. Licklider proposed network-wide communication for ARPANET. Ray Tomlinson set up the first network email in 1971, between two PDP-10 computers in the same room. Tomlinson created the at sign (@) format for addresses. The program was called SNDMSG. A “mailbox” was simply a file which SNDMSG could append to. Before long, email was one of the most popular uses of ARPANET.

A series of documents called RFCs (Request for Comments) refined email protocols through the seventies and have continued ever since. RFC 772 described the Mail Transfer Protocol, modeled on the File Transfer Protocol (FTP). It went through a series of revisions to become the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), defined in 1982 by RFC 821. SMTP is still the basis of all email.

Attaching stuff

Along the way, though, email had lost something. Originally it was a way of sending whole files, so you could mail any kind of file. As protocols evolved, it became just a way of sending ASCII text messages. Sending binary data required some extra ingenuity.

One early approach was Uuencode, which allowed encoding binary files in ASCII within a text message. It gave way to Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions, or MIME, which is the standard way of encoding attachments today. Everything in email is actually text; MIME uses text to represent binary data with ASCII characters. This allows not only attachments but non-ASCII characters. Today most email uses Unicode, so any language in the world can use the right characters, but it’s built on top of ASCII.

And then there was spam

Spam isn’t quite as old as email, but it doesn’t lag far behind. RFC 706, published in 1975, is titled “On the Junk Mail Problem” and suggests blacklisting as an anti-junk measure. It was just hypothetical then. The first spam email is widely attributed to Gary Thuerk, a Digital Equipment Corporation employees who sent out a message to hundreds of people on May 3, 1978. He wasn’t trying to defraud anyone, but the size of his list was enough to get a lot of people annoyed, and it violated ARPANET’s acceptable use policy.

The term “spam” comes from a Monty Python sketch about a restaurant that serves Spam (the lunchmeat) in every dish. The connection is that “spam” is something you get too much of and can’t get away from.

Email today

The way email is sent hasn’t changed much since the introduction of MIME in 1992. The whole edifice is still built on a foundation of ASCII text. It doesn’t have any built-in security features. Forgery is trivial. A host of messaging applications do many things better, but email has one feature which they don’t: You can send email to anyone on the Internet. It may be old and clunky, but it will stay around for a long time.

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