How the First Email Message Changed Our World
Have you ever thought about who sent the first email? You likely use email countless times each day without considering the pioneers who made it possible. But back in the early 1970s, email did not exist. Sending a message to someone on a different computer was impossible. That all changed thanks to the ingenuity of a programmer named Ray Tomlinson, whose invention of network email laid the foundations for the communications revolution we continue to experience today.
The Tech Scene Prior to Networked Email
In the 1960s, rudimentary forms of electronic messaging emerged within self-contained computer networks. At MIT, programmers had created a system called MAIL on their CTSS network which allowed users to exchange messages and attach text files. This was a breakthrough, but only worked between accounts on that same system.
Across the country, programmers were building another system called ARPANET for the Department of Defense. One of those pioneers was Ray Tomlinson, who had helped develop a protocol called NCP that allowed ARPANET computers to communicate. By the late 60s, he was working to improve an intra-system messaging program called SNDMSG on the TENEX computers connected to ARPANET.
SNDMSG was revolutionary at the time, allowing users to send notes that would arrive in the recipient‘s mailbox on that same TENEX system. Of course, they could only message others on the same computer. But what if these messages could cross the network?
Hacking Together a Solution
Tomlinson realized he could leverage ARPANET‘s file transfer protocol, which he had also contributed to, called CPYNET. This allowed files to be sent between different computers on the network. By merging some of the CPYNET code into SNDMSG, there was an opportunity to extend messaging across ARPANET.
But major challenges remained. There needed to be a way to direct messages to the right mailbox, even on remote systems the sender didn‘t have access to. After some thought, Tomlinson came up with the idea of using the "@" symbol to separate local account names from the destination host, creating an addressing format that is second-nature today.
By late 1971, Tomlinson had done it – he had programmed the first system allowing messages to be sent between users on different computers via a network. His colleagues were astonished when Tomlinson demonstrated this capability by sending test messages between two machines located side-by-side, but connected through ARPANET.
While the first words ever sent on this revolutionary email system have been lost, it was a landmark moment. And Tomlinson made sure to announce his achievement by using email itself to tell others on the network about this new messaging capability.
Email Explodes in Popularity
Tomlinson‘s hacked together solution was an enormous breakthrough, even if limited compared to modern email. It established techniques like client-server architecture, message routing, and domain addressing that became Internet foundations. Throughout the 70s, email systems expanded, adopting better protocols like FTP for transferring mail between servers.
But email didn‘t go mainstream until the explosion of the Internet and World Wide Web in the 90s. Soon, billions of messages were sent daily. The first Blackberry smartphone in 2003 then put email right in people‘s pockets. By 2020, over 300 billion emails were sent per day!
The Lasting Impact of the First Email
Today, Tomlinson‘s name is not widely remembered outside of tech circles. But his pioneering work established the protocols and functionality that evolved into the ubiquitous and indispensable communication system we know as email.
Some innovations only reveal their full significance in retrospect. So it is with that first crude email message sent between two ARPANET computers in 1971, which paved the way for a communications revolution. Tomlinson‘s ingenuity unleashed the potential for unprecedented global collaboration and interaction, linking society in a way he could scarcely have imagined over half a century ago.
The Future of Email
Email has come a long way, but still faces challenges, from vulnerabilities like phishing to the plague of spam. Efforts to improve security and privacy continue so that email remains safe and trusted. At the same time, new innovations integrate email into social media platforms and workplace productivity tools.
Email may one day become obsolete, superseded by some even more advanced communication system built on what Tomlinson‘s pioneering work made possible. But for now, email remains deeply embedded in our lives, a legacy of one brilliant programmer who saw the potential to connect people across the nascent Internet‘s networks.