05/12/2021

035 – You have mail – 1971

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I don’t believe in email. I’m an old-fashioned girl.
I prefer calling and hanging up. Sarah Jessica Parker

In 1965 MIT’s CTSS system first offered users of its time-share system the facility to send and receive messages.  The Systems Development Corporation provided this on an AN/FSQ32 at around the same time.  The SAGE system too offered the facility from 1966 onwards.  But these were for users connected to the same computer.

Working at BBN Ray Tomlinson was familiar with this sort of email.  The SNDMSG routine allowed a user to compose, address and send messages to another user’s mailbox and READMAIL reviewed them.

He also worked with CPYNET, a file transfer program used between networks.  He concluded that CPYNET could send a mailbox message as easily as a file and developed an append routine to make this possible.  He realised it was necessary to distinguish between a local SNDMSG and messages to append to CPYNET for sending outside the local network.

He decided to apply the little-used ‘@’ symbol to separate the name of the user and the host.  This was a good choice, but it did run into one problem.  MIT’s MULTICS used the @ to erase the current line of code/instruction when an error occurred.  So on entering an email address, MULTICS users had issues.

Tomlinson tested it between two computers right next to each other; their connection was via ARPANET.  He says the first message was probably QWERTYUIOP or something equally simplistic.  But the process was included in the 1972 release of TENEX and soon remote emailing became popular.

1972 File transfer protocol was being settled by ARPANET and Tomlinson’s process was modified by Larry Roberts who updated READMAIL to RD. 

Barry Wessler then updated RD to become NRD and Marty Yonke merged Tomlinson’s SNDMSG with NRD to become WRD; this added a help function to the reading and sending processes.  John Vittal added an automatic answer routine called MSG and this in 1973 put email right at the heart of the developing ARPANET.

1982 Protocols were updated.  Email no longer piggy-backed FTP; it had its own simple mail transfer protocol.  In 1996 the protocols changed to permit multimedia content to be attached to emails using MIME, multipurpose internet mail extensions.

It took only a few years for unsolicited bulk emails or spam to emerge.  The term ‘spam’ derived from a Monty Python sketch in which a café’s menu consisted largely of canned luncheon meat; the skit was punctuated with Vikings singing ‘spam, spam, spam, spam…’

Gary Thuerk in the DEC marketing team mailed a message in May 1978 to every ARPANET found in a published directory address on the US West Coast.  The sender was ‘THUERK@DEC-MARLBORO’ who invited them to a presentation of the latest DECsystem-20 computers; there were around 400 spammed recipients!  A mild offence – perhaps this was the first viral marketing message?  Today it is estimated that 80% of all emails sent are spam or junk emails.

2005 King’s College London suggested that high email, mobile and text usage could damage IQ.  Messages constantly interrupt thinking and a study suggested the challenge of balancing current activity with incoming mails was as damaging as losing a night’s sleep.  Experiments on 1,100 people had found that it could lower IQ by ten points; taking cannabis dropped it by only four!  The experimenter said it was ‘a recipe for muddled thinking and poor performance’.

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