In 1975, before the days of personal computers, a leading industry trade magazine,
, envisioned the future of electronic mail with an editorial cartoon showing a man at a desk pointing to his “terminal.” The caption read, “This? Oh, this is the display for my electronic junk mail.”
Two years later, in 1977, the maturing e-mail industry got its first newsletter, “EMMS: Electronic Mail and Message Systems.” Then, in 1978, three years after Datamation published its editorial cartoon, I received what is widely acknowledged to have been the first spam message, sent over the ARPANET by Gary Thuerk, a marketer for my eventual employer Digital Equipment Corp. The message went to roughly 400 users, and the community was swift in denouncing this “flagrant violation of the use of ARPANET,” according to a blog post by ClariNet Communications Corp. founder and publisher Brad Templeton.
The evolution of electronic mail development is a story of collaboration filled with personalities, software systems and acronyms. My own involvement in the development of electronic mail began in 1972, shortly after Ray Tomlinson chose the “@” symbol to trigger his new mechanism for transmitting messages from one computer to another. E-mail had existed on individual machines at least from 1965, according to technologist Tom Van Vleck, who was working for MIT at the time. Tomlinson, however, was the first to connect machines. I was an undergraduate studying psychology at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) when the ARPANET research group in engineering hired me to do technical editing and user support.
While working on the ARPANET, I discovered the collaborative culture that became the foundation of today’s “open systems” practices. Ideas, documents and software were freely shared within this community, and anyone who wanted to learn and contribute could participate, including me — a psychology student who had never taken a programming course.
It helped that my brother, Steve, taught me computer programming when I was twelve. At the time, the conventional wisdom dictated that, in order to learn computer programming, one needed an advanced mathematics degree. Today, Steve is the board chair for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which coordinates the unique identifiers across the Internet. More significantly for the current narrative about the early days of the ARPANET, he established the collaborative tone and open availability of the Internet’s Request for Comments (RFC) technical document series, which remains, for many, a cornerstone of the Internet’s open culture.