History of email

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The history of email extends over more than 50 years, entailing an evolving set of technologies and standards that culminated in the email systems in use today.

Computer-based mail and messaging became possible with the advent of time-sharing computers in the early 1960s, and informal methods of using shared files to pass messages were soon expanded into the first mail systems. Most developers of early mainframes and minicomputers developed similar, but generally incompatible, mail applications. Over time, a complex web of gateways and routing systems linked many of them. Many US universities were part of the ARPANET, which aimed at software portability between its systems. That portability helped make the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) increasingly influential.

For a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed likely that either a proprietary commercial system or the X.400 email system, part of the Government Open Systems Interconnection Profile (GOSIP), would predominate. However, once the final restrictions on carrying commercial traffic over the Internet ended in 1995,[1][2] a combination of factors made the current Internet suite of SMTP, POP3 and IMAP email protocols the standard.


The first electrical transmission of messages began in the 19th century in the form of the electrical telegraph, which started to replace earlier forms of telegraphy from the 1840s in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Telex became an operational teleprinter service in 1933, beginning in Germany and Europe, and after 1945 spread around the world.[3]

The AUTODIN military network in the United States, first operational in 1962, provided a message service between 1,350 terminals, handling 30 million messages per month, with an average message length of approximately 3,000 characters.[4] By 1968, AUTODIN linked more than 300 sites in several countries.

Host-based mail systems[edit]

With the introduction of MIT's Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) in 1961,[5] for the first time multiple users could log into a central system[nb 1] from remote terminals, and store and share files on the central disk.[6] Informal methods of using this to pass messages were soon developed and expanded:

  • 1965 – MIT's CTSS "MAIL" command was proposed by Pat Crisman, Glenda Schroeder, & Louis Pouzin, then implemented by Tom Van Vleck and Noel Morris.[7] Each user's messages would be added to a local file called "MAIL BOX", which would have a "private" mode so that only the owner could read or delete messages. The proposed uses of the proto-email system were for communication from CTSS to notify users that files had been backed up, discussion between authors of CTSS commands, and communication from command authors to the CTSS manual editor.

Developers of other early systems developed similar email applications:

  • 1962
  • 1968
  • 1971
    • SNDMSG, a local inter-user mail program incorporating the experimental file transfer program, CPYNET, allowed the first networked electronic mail.[11][12] The addresses already contained the '@' character as a separator between local part and host.
  • 1972
    • The Unix mail program enabled users to write mails and send them to mailboxes of other Unix users.[13][14] Furthermore it helped managing the mailbox of the current user.
    • APL Mailbox, by Larry Breed of STSC, aimed at being a more robust mail software than a predecessor written in 1971.[15][16][17]
  • 1973
  • 1974
  • 1978
    • Computerized Bulletin Board System (CBBS) was a public dial-up BBS
    • Mail client written by Kurt Shoens for Unix and distributed with the Second Berkeley Software Distribution included support for aliases and distribution lists, forwarding, formatting messages, and accessing different mailboxes.[20] It used the Unix mail client to send messages between system users. The concept was extended to communicate remotely over the Berkeley Network.[21]
    • CompuServe offer Electronic mail as part of their corporate Infoplex service.[22]
  • 1979
  • 1980
    • Wang Laboratories introduced its Integrated Information Systems line, incorporating the ability to attach digitised voice Messages.[25][26]
  • 1981
    • IBM PROFS,[27] the predecessor of OfficeVision/VM, is released, incorporating a centralised virtual machine to manage mail transfer between individuals.
    • Xerox Star goes on sale, offering a commercial variant of the 1973[28] Xerox Alto’s multi user, WYSIWYG based virtual office, with Email.
    • April 1 - CompuServe rebrands its Electronic Mail service as EMAIL, a name it would latter file a US trademark application for.[29][30]
  • 1982
    • April - HPMAIL (later HP DeskManager) by Hewlett-Packard, went on sale.[31]
    • June - ALL-IN-1[32] by Digital Equipment Corporation, an office automation system including functionality in electronic messaging, was released.
    • June 18 - 21: The US Congress’ Joint Subcommittee on Economic Goals and Intergovernmental policy, held a hearing on the Future of Mail delivery in the United States, and whether the US Postal Service should be prevented from competing with the numerous commercial electronic mail providers, then in operation.[33]
    • August 30 - EMAIL, an application developed at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, under Leslie P. Michelson, for a HP1000 minicomputer, would have its Copyright registered in the US, by a high school intern engaged on the project, Shiva Ayyadurai.[34][35]
  • 1984
    • FidoNet is released, creating a network of connected Email accepting, and forwarding Bulletin boards.
  • 1994
  • 2010
    • July 5 - Shiva Ayyadurai registers the domain inventorofemail.com, to assert his claim of being the inventor of email, not just a co-author of a specific electronic messaging implementation.[37][38][39][40]
  • 2016

LAN email systems[edit]

In the early 1980s, networked personal computers on LANs became increasingly important. Server-based systems similar to the earlier mainframe systems were developed. Examples include:

Eventually these systems could link different organizations as long as each organization ran the same email system and proprietary protocol.[nb 2]

Email networks[edit]

The first ARPANET email was sent between these two adjacent PDP-10 computers at BBN Technologies (connected only through the ARPANET)

To facilitate electronic mail exchange between remote sites and with other organizations, telecommunication links, such as dialup modems or leased lines, provided means to transport email globally, creating local and global networks. This was challenging for a number of reasons, including the widely different email address formats in use.

  • In 1971 the first ARPANET email was sent,[44] and through RFC 561, RFC 680, RFC 724, and finally 1977's RFC 733, became a standardized working system.
  • PLATO IV was networked to individual terminals over leased data lines prior to the implementation of personal notes in 1974.[19]
  • IBM VNET was deployed by 1975, using BSC to communicate among CP-67 and VM hosts running RSCS.
  • Unix mail was networked by 1978's uucp,[45] which was also used for USENET newsgroup postings, with similar headers.
  • BerkNet, the Berkeley Network, was written by Eric Schmidt in 1978 and included first in the Second Berkeley Software Distribution. It provided support for sending and receiving messages over serial communication links. The Unix mail tool was extended to send messages using BerkNet.[21]
  • The delivermail tool, written by Eric Allman in 1979 and 1980 (and shipped in 4BSD), provided support for routing mail over dissimilar networks, including Arpanet, UUCP, and BerkNet. (It also provided support for mail user aliases.)[46]
  • The mail client included in 4BSD (1980) was extended to provide interoperability between a variety of mail systems.[47]
  • BITNET (1981) provided electronic mail services for educational institutions. It was based on the IBM VNET email system.[48]
  • 1983 – MCI Mail Operated by MCI Communications Corporation. This was the first commercial public email service to use the internet. MCI Mail also allowed subscribers to send regular postal mail (overnight) to non-subscribers.[49]
  • In 1984, IBM PCs running DOS could link with FidoNet for email and shared bulletin board posting.
  • Four companies provided electronic mail services in the United Kingdom in 1985, enabling subscribers to send email over telephone connections or data networks such as Packet Switch Stream.[50]

Attempts at interoperability[edit]

Early interoperability among independent systems included:

  • ARPANET, a forerunner of the Internet, defined protocols for dissimilar computers to exchange email.
  • uucp implementations for Unix systems, and later for other operating systems, that only had dial-up communications available.
  • CSNET, which initially used a purpose-built dial-up protocol, called Phonenet, to provide mail-relay services for non-ARPANET hosts.
  • Message Handling System (MHS) protocol. Developed by Action Technologies, this was later bought and promoted by Novell.[51][52][53] However they abandoned it after purchasing the non-MHS WordPerfect Office—which they renamed Groupwise.
  • HP OpenMail was known for its ability to interconnect several other APIs and protocols, including MAPI, cc:Mail, SMTP/MIME, and X.400.
  • Soft-Switch released its eponymous email gateway product in 1984, acquired by Lotus Software ten years later.[54]
  • The Coloured Book protocols ran on UK academic networks from 1975 until 1992.
  • X.400 in the 1980s and early 1990s was promoted by major vendors, and mandated for government use under GOSIP, but abandoned by all but a few in favor of Internet SMTP by the mid-1990s (see Protocol Wars).

From SNDMSG to MSG[edit]

In the early 1970s, Ray Tomlinson updated an existing utility called SNDMSG so that it could copy messages (as files) over the network. Lawrence Roberts, the project manager for the ARPANET development, took the idea of READMAIL, which dumped all "recent" messages onto the user's terminal, and wrote a programme for TENEX in TECO macros called RD, which permitted access to individual messages.[55] Barry Wessler then updated RD and called it NRD.[56]

Marty Yonke rewrote NRD to include reading, access to SNDMSG for sending, and a help system, and called the utility WRD, which was later known as BANANARD. John Vittal then updated this version to include three important commands: Move (combined save/delete command), Answer (determined to whom a reply should be sent) and Forward (sent an email to a person who was not already a recipient). The system was called MSG. With inclusion of these features, MSG is considered to be the first integrated modern email programme, from which many other applications have descended.[55]

ARPANET mail[edit]

Experimental email transfers between separate computer systems began shortly after the creation of the ARPANET in 1969.[7] Ray Tomlinson is generally credited as having sent the first email across a network, initiating the use of the "@" sign to separate the names of the user and the user's machine in 1971, when he sent a message from one Digital Equipment Corporation DEC-10 computer to another DEC-10. The two machines were placed next to each other.[12][57] Tomlinson's work was quickly adopted across the ARPANET, which significantly increased the popularity of email. Tomlinson is internationally known as the inventor of modern email.[58]

Initially addresses were of the form, username@hostname[59] but were extended to "username@host.domain" with the development of the Domain Name System (DNS).

As the influence of the ARPANET spread across academic communities, gateways were developed to pass mail to and from other networks such as CSNET, JANET, BITNET, X.400, and FidoNet. This often involved addresses such as:


which routes mail to a user with a "bang path" address at a UUCP host.

Notable first uses of email[edit]

Queen Elizabeth II sent the first email from a head of state over the ARPANET from the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in England on March 26, 1976.[60][61] Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign became the first to use email in the autumn of 1976.[16][17][62] IBM PROFS email was used by the U.S. National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.[27][63] The first U.S. President to use Internet email was Bill Clinton in the 1990s, including a reply to an email from the prime minister of Sweden in 1994.[64][65][66][67]


  1. ^ an IBM 7094
  2. ^ with various vendors supplying gateway software to link these incompatible systems


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External links[edit]