The Origins of E-mail

Leading up to E-Mail

Even before the development of ARPANET, computer scientists at MIT had developed a program called MAILBOX that allowed for the exchange of messages between time-sharing computers within one lab. This did not seem to improve convenience greatly, however, because people within the lab could easily step over to the next office and deliver the message in person. Later, in 1972, Ray Tomlinson at BBN, designed a messaging program for use on the PDP-10 computer. The program consisted of two individual programs, SNDMSG for sending mail and READMAIL, a program to retrieve mail. These were meant to work on the BBN-designed TENEX operating system in the PDP-10 computer. Fortunately for the development of email, many of the machines on ARPANET were PDP-10's, running Tenex. At the time, Tomlinson had just finished writing a file transfer protocol, CPYNET. He experimented with attaching SNDMSG and READMAIL to the protocol, thus making it possible to send messages outside of a time-sharing system. The file-transfer protocol took messages from one machine and "dropped" them into another. These early experiments made possible the next step towards email over the ARPANET.

Implementing Email on the ARPANET

Concurrent to Tomlinson's work in 1972, Abhay Bhushan was finishing the file-transfer protocol for the ARPANET. If Tomlinson was able to attach his mail programs to CPYNET, it was only logical to attach them to the ARPANET's file-transfer protocol. SNDMSG and READMAIL became MAIL and MLFL, bringing email to the ARPANET.

The Rise of Email by way of Convenient Mail-Managers

Stephen Lukasik, one of ARPA's directors from 1971-75 might be one of the most important advocates of email in its young age. He strongly encouraged his staff to use email. It was even considered the most effective way to reach Lukasik. Close friends and colleagues with Larry Roberts, Lukasik confided to Roberts in 1973 that he was beginning to face problems organizing the chaotic pile of messages received each day. (At this point, in a study conducted by ARPA under Lukasik's direction discovered that 75% of all ARPANET traffic was in the form of email.) Not to mention, reading and responding to the messages was, as of yet not a simple matter. In response, Roberts wrote the first "mail-manager software," RD. Its functions included displaying a menu of messages and allowing the user to file messages and delete messages. This inspired an outburst of variations on the mail manager. A legendary variation, MSG was created in 1975 by John Vittal. MSG quickly became the most widely used mail-management program due to its convenient features. It could handle an even greater amount of mail than RD, could sort messages into separate files, and most importantly, reply and forward with much greater ease. MSG also spawned a large amount of variations.

The First Mailing List Discussion Group and Email Culture

The great number of mail-reading programs on the ARPANET brought up the need to develop a standard format for email, as it was necessary that programs be able to interpret the format of the message. The heading before the message, in particular, needed a standard format. Several protocols were posted in RFC's but these only served to create a divide between Tenex users, for whom the standards, and non-Tenex users. In 1975 Steve Walker, an ARPA manager proposed starting "an electronic discussion group" called MsgGroup to act as a forum for such debates as the mail-header one. Einar Stefferaud took on the responsibility of manually keeping the discussion going. He would receive messages to post and forward them to each person on the list, thus establishing the first mailing list and opening the ARPANET as a tool for discussion.

Interesting Tidbits

The Widened Use of ARPANET

In 1976, in an effort to communicate with and get to know his children, Will Crowther created on of the first role-playing games, Adventure. As Crowther showed his game to colleagues and friends, everyone wanted to play the game. The use of the network to spread this game among the ARPANET community marked a turning point in the use of computer networks. The ARPANET was becoming a more informal tool with which people could share anything and through which people could gain access to anything.

The Origin of @

When Ray Tomlinson designed his early email programs, he realized he need something to separate the user's name form the host's name. As the pioneer in email programs, he had the freedom to choose any key whatsoever on the keyboard. He finally chose @ because he believed it would never occur in a name. That it also meant at was an extra plus.

The First Emoticon, April 12, 1979

Kevin MacKenzie, a MsgGrp member, once complained about the loss of gestures, emotions, and intonations when communicating electronically. As one solution to this problem, he proposed placing the symbol -) at the end of "tongue-in-cheek" remarks. This would eventually give way to icons like :-) or ;-).

E-Mail Today

The majority of e-mail which is composed today is sent using a process called Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP).

Last Updated: 17 September 1999, 01:28