I’ve always been intrigued by the history of technology, and I think a lot of that is due to having almost everything computer-related happen during my lifetime. I missed a tech anniversary earlier this year when email turned 50.
It was April 1971 when software engineer Ray Tomlinson first used the @ symbol as the key to route a message between computers within ARPANET, the birthplace of the Internet. Tomlinson was working on a project at the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency that was developing a way to facilitate communications between government computers. There had been transmission of messages between computers starting in 1969, but Tomlinson’s use of the @ symbol has been identified as the birth of network email.
ARPA became DARPA when the military adopted the agency. DARPA kept a key role in the further development of email and created a set of email standards in 1973. These standards include things like having the “To” and “From” fields as headers for emails.
Email largely remained as a government and university protocol until 1989, when CompuServe made email available to its subscribers. CompuServe customers could communicate with each other, but not with the outside world.
In 1993, AOL further promoted email when every AOL customer was automatically given an email address. This led to the “You’ve got mail” slogan, and I can still hear the AOL announcement in my head today.
In 1996, Hotmail made a free email address available to anybody who had an Internet connection. Millions of people got email addresses, and the use of email went mainstream. If you ever used Hotmail, you’ll remember the note at the bottom of every email that said, “P.S. I love you. Get your free email here”. Hotmail was purchased by Microsoft in 1997 and was morphed over time into Outlook. This was one of the first big tech company acquisitions, at $400 million, which showed that huge value could be created by giving away web services for free.
In 1997, Yahoo launched a competing free email service that gave users even more options.
In 2004, Google announced its free Gmail service with the announcement that users could have a full gigabyte of storage, far more than anybody else offered.
Over the years, there have been many communications platforms launched that promised to displace email. This includes Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Slack, Discord, and many others. But with all of these alternate ways for people to communicate, email still reigns supreme and usage has grown every year since inception.
There are over 300 billion emails generated every day. Gmail alone has 1.6 billion email addresses, representing 20% of all people on the planet. In the workplace, the average American employee sends 40 emails each day and receives 121.
The beauty of email is its simplicity. It can work across any technology platform. It still uses HTML protocols to create headers and add attachments to an email. Routing is done with SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) that allows messages to be sent to anybody else in the world.
On the downside, the ease of email has spawned spam when marketers found that they could sell even the most bizarre products if they sent enough emails. In recent time, emails have been used to implant malware on a recipient’s computer if they willingly open attachments.
One downside for the future of email is that many Americans under 30 hate using it. We’ll have to see over time if email gets displaced, but it would be a slow transition.
But email is still a powerful tool that is ingrained in our daily lives. Email was one of the early features that lured millions into joining the web. So happy birthday, email.