The Origin of Email – How it All Began


Electronic mail, better known as Email, has changed the face of communication over several decades. Email can be defined as a method for composing, sending, storing and receiving messages via electronic communication systems. The word “email” is used as both a noun and a verb, and applies to all Internet email systems based on SMTP, X.400 systems and intranet systems.

How did it all begin?

Before the Internet, there was email: it was probably the most crucial tool in developing the Internet in the late 80s. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology first exhibited the CTSS (Compatible Time Sharing System) in 1961. The CTSS allowed many simultaneous users to log into the IBM 7094 from remote dial-up machines, and to store online files on as diskette. This incredible development encouraged users to share information in a variety of ways. The birth of email was in 1965, when multiple users of a time-sharing mainframe computer started to communicate remotely and electronically.

While the complete history and exact dates are somewhat hazy in detail, the very first systems to have basic email facilities were System Development Corporation’s Q32 and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s CTSS. By 1966, email had rapidly expanded to become network email, allowing users to pass electronic message between different computers.

The ARPANET was undoubtedly a good contributor to the development of email. History reports say there were experiments on inter-system email transfers just after it was created in 1969. Ray Tomlinson, a programmer involved in developing a time-sharing system named the TENEX, was the first person to discover that the various hosts can be differentiated by using the @ sign to separate the user’s name and their machine. Until 1971, when the actual “email” was discovered, machines could only send messages to the users within its own system.

The popularity of email was boosted through the ARPANET and in time, email became the core technology of Internet communication.

Ray Tomlinson – Discovering the Network Email

The first person to discover the possibility of sending a receiving message between different computers through a network, Ray Tomlinson is the person to thank for the revolutionary outcome of the “email”. Although there were many instances where messages passed between different users within the same computer and created quite an impression among users, the true email we know today began with the first network email.

Ray Tomlinson was involved in a group developing a time-sharing system named TENEX that ran on Digital PDP-10 computers, and he was working on the Network Control Protocol for both TENEX and CPYNET (experimental file transfer program). While making improvements on SNDMSG, the local inter-user mail program available at that time, Ray Tomlinson realized that he could easily incorporate the code from CPYNET in to SNDMSG and transfer messages through a network connection to remote mailboxes, as well as attach messages to local mailbox files.

By incorporating the features of SNDMSG and CPYNET, he managed to develop a network- emailing program and tested it on two machine literally set side by side. He used @ sign to distinguish the different machines in a very simpler manner, such as “from: me@thismachine to: you@thatmachine “. After testing the program several times by sending message back and forth between the two computers, he sent a general message to his group explaining how to send message through the network. And that was how the first network email came to existence.

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