A Brief History of Email

Mankind has always had a compelling desire to communicate. In ancient times this was achieved either verbally or in some form of writing. If remote communication was required (i.e. if the parties were not physically together) then messages had to be physically carried or sent by a messenger.

Examples of early forms of remote transmission of messages not requiring a person to actually move between the sender and the receiver include various types of “talking drumin Western Africa or “smoke signal” transmissions as used in Ancient China and by Native Americans.

While these methods allowed individuals to communicate almost instantly and effectively over much greater distances than would have otherwise been possible, the communications send and received were somewhat lacking in security and privacy.

If electronic mail or email is loosely defined as any message transmitted electronically, then the very first “email messages” would have started in the last century with the invention of the telegraph (by wire) and Morse Code transmissions (via airways).

This definition would also extend to include the telex network that was used extensively by businesses on a world-wide basis from the mid-1920’s to the mid-1980’s. The telex network was independent of the telephone network and telex machines could connect with and communicate with any other telex machine on a global scale.

Telex also was relatively secure in that the sending and receiving machines performed identifying handshaking. It was relatively expensive to have a telex line installed and subsequent telex messages were charged on a data transmitted basis.

In addition, for much of its history, use of telex required a dedicated telex terminal which was less than intuitive and often required trained operators. It may come as a surprise to many in this age of computers and chips everywhere that telex is still operating and being used throughout the world.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s many companies who were using mainframe and mini computers also used email facilities on those systems. This enabled users of terminals attached to those systems to send messages to each other. As companies began to connect their central systems (hosts) to branch offices and subsidiaries then employees were able to send email to other employees of that company on a world-wide basis.

Also during this time, the United States Department of Defense’s research into computer networks was well underway, resulting in the embryonic Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). ARPANET would become the forerunner to the now global Internet.

According to information regarding these early years, the first ARPANET network email message was transmitted in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson, a computer programmer working for Bolt Beranek and Newman, the company hired by the Department of Defense to build ARPANET.

In the late-1970’s and 1980’s the phenomenal growth of personal computers (Apple II 1978 – 1985; IBM PC 1983 and Apple Macintosh 1984) created a whole new genre of email technologies. Some of these systems were proprietary ‘dial-up’ systems such as MCI Mail, EasyLink, Telecom Gold, One-to-One, CompuServe, AppleLink etc.

For two people to exchange messages remotely on these systems they had to both be subscribers. The proprietary systems did not interoperate or transmit messages from one system to another, or for the few systems that did these were notoriously unreliable – a reason for eventual demise of most of these systems.

At the same time, a number of companies and enthusiasts of the technology were setting up ‘bulletin board systems’ (BBS) which were often used both to send and receive messages and to exchange information.

A couple of facts are worthy of note at this juncture:

  1. there were over one million Apple II computers sold before the first ‘PC’ was even released;
  2. there were hundreds-of-thousands of personal computer users sending and receiving ’email messages’ using dial-up systems prior to the internet becoming available for general use.

In parallel with the development of the personal computer market, companies were connecting the personal computers increasingly being used by their staff to both their mainframe/midrange systems and to “LAN-based” email systems.

When connected to the mainframe/midrange systems they were often being used in ‘terminal emulation’ mode and therefore the email being used was the same as for the dedicated terminals. The LAN-based systems often had much easier-to-use interfaces and offered more functionality, such as the ability to send attachments with email messages.

As the company networks slowly evolved from terminal-based host-access applications through to PC work groups, the Internet was becoming more widely used for access to information. Firstly for military use, then academic and commercial communications. The history of the internet and its creation is a complex issue.

As the Internet became available to more people, both privately and through company connections, the email facilities available to users have evolved from the proprietary email systems available within company networks and via host-based systems through to the current trend of “Intranets” which are effectively private mini-Internets, using the standards-based Internet services, such as mail & web servers in place of proprietary ones.Email Smart Phone

Since 1995 both the Internet and email have been ‘hot’ topics. But when one cuts away the hype, one realizes that email itself is not new. What is relatively new however is that email is now:

  1. more readily available
  2. interoperable between systems
  3. available world-wide
  4. inexpensive
  5. much better known – reached a critical mass where one can expect others to have an email address
  6. (generally) complies with standards
  7. much easier to use
  8. fashionable

No doubt the Internet will shape future communications, far beyond the current uses. As to what features and functions that will become available over the next few years, the speed of progress dictates that we can only guess.