50 years of email history

The History of Email: Major Milestones from 50 Years

4

Call it a birthday celebration. Call it a golden anniversary. Email has been around for a half-century and we’re marking the occasion with a look back at how far it’s come!

The history of email is full of interesting stories and groundbreaking technology. We’ve highlighted 24 major milestones from the last 50 years in the timeline below. Click through the slideshow to travel through the years and explore email history. Read on for more insights into the history of email.

1971: The Invention of Email

Most people give Ray Tomlinson the title of email’s inventor. He came up with the idea while working for ARPANET, the government-funded research project that eventually became the internet. At the time, you could only leave messages for people using the same computer. Tomlinson created a program that gave users the ability to send messages between connected computers on the ARPANET system.

ARPANET computers that sent first emails
The first email was sent between these two ARPANET computers

Among Tomlinson’s most notable contributions to email as we know it today is the use of the @ symbol. Tomlinson passed away in 2016, but he lived to see his idea adopted by people all over the world.

In 2012, Tomlinson told The Verge

I see email being used, by and large, exactly the way I envisioned.”

1976: The Queen’s First Email

Queen Elizabeth II was the first head-of-state to use email. She tried out ARPANET’s electronic mail program during a visit to the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern, England. They gave her the username HME2 for “Her Majesty Elizabeth II.”

As WIRED magazine put it, the Queen of England beat all of us to the internet. And, she’s still using the latest technology to communicate!

Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign was the first to use email this same year. More recently, however, the former president has avoided email because he thinks the NSA is spying on him.

1978: The First Spam Email

It didn’t take long for someone to find a way to use email to make money. Gary Thurek earned the title “father of spam” after sending an unsolicited email marketing message to hundreds of ARPANET users. He was promoting a new product for Digital Equipment Corporation. Thurek claims the email earned $13 million in sales.

With that kind of success, you might question whether this was truly spam or just some clever email marketing. You might ask the same question about the most ironic email campaign ever.

1978: The Other Inventor’s EMAIL Program

There is an ongoing debate over the inventor of email. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai claims a program he created as a 14-year-old is the true first version of email. Ayyadurai built his interoffice software program for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He called “EMAIL.”

Ayyadurai went on to earn four degrees from MIT, found tech companies, and get involved in politics. While his claim to be the inventor of email is contested by many, it’s very possible that he coined the term.

1982: Making Email Simpler

Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) standardized the way mail servers send and receive messages. It’s partly based on the SNDMSG program that Tomlinson created at ARPANET. SMTP is what email clients use to send messages to mail servers and on to the recipients.

Other protocols include the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) and the Post Office Protocol (POP), which would emerge in the mid ‘80s.

1988: Outlook’s Ancestor

Towards the end of the decade, Microsoft released its first commercially available email product, MSMail. There were versions for both Macintosh and PC computers. It was seen as the predecessor for the Exchange and Outlook products.

Microsoft has been causing headaches for email developers ever since! Troubles creating emails for Outlook is one of the main reasons to use Email on Acid’s features.

1989: The Voice of Email in the ‘90s

Elwood Edwards’ voice likely helped the masses get hooked on checking email. He’s the guy behind AOL’s “You’ve Got Mail” notification. It was probably one of the earliest ways to get a dopamine hit online. At the time, Edwards was working in broadcasting and his wife worked at AOL. She asked him to record a few lines, which he did on a cassette tape in his living room.

While he didn’t get rich from the recording, he’s received plenty of attention. In 2016, Edwards was driving for Uber. Occasionally, people still recognize that unmistakable voice.

1991: Email in Space

Email went galactic in the early ‘90s. That’s when the crew of the Atlantis Shuttle used a Macintosh Portable to send the first email from space. The message read:

“Hello Earth! Greetings from the STS-43 Crew. This is the first AppleLink from space. Having a GREAT time, wish you were here,…send cryo and RCS! Hasta la vista, baby,…we’ll be back!”

The crew was all about Apple products on this mission. According to Cult of Mac, the astronauts were also fitted with WristMacs, which were predecessors to today’s Apple Watch.

1992: Making Email More than Text

Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension (MIME) made email much more flexible, supporting text in character sets other than ASCII. It also made it possible to include multimedia attachments such as images, audio, and videos.

1992: What You See is What You Get

Formatting emails without knowledge of code became a reality thanks to CompuServe. The early ISP introduced a WYSIWYG editor for email and online forums that allowed different fonts, colors, and emoticons.

1993: The Birth of Webmail

The history of email moved so quickly, it’s easy to forget that, for quite some time, you had to send and receive email on a specific software program. Phillip Hallam-Baker, a cyber-security expert working for CERN developed the first version of webmail. But his version was only a test and never got released to the public.

1996: The Rise of Webmail Clients

Of course, the idea of being able to access your email from any computer with an internet connection would take off quickly. ISPs began bundling webmail into their offerings in the mid ‘90s. Hotmail and RocketMail, the latter of which became Yahoo! Mail, were the first free webmail services.

1998: Defining Spam

One of the unfortunate side effects of email being an inexpensive way to reach the masses was spam. Unwanted messages that often came from unsavory operations became a prolific problem, and it’s probably the ugliest scar in the history of email. In 1998, spam went into the New Oxford Dictionary along with several other internet terms.

Many believe the origins of calling junk email “spam” can be traced back to a classic Monty Python sketch. In the sketch, patrons of a diner get inundated with annoying chants of spam, which they do not want.

1999: Ethical Email Marketing

Email marketing doesn’t have to be annoying. Seth Godin and his agency Yoyodyne believed email could be used effectively and responsibly when you build a list of subscribers who actually want to hear from you. (Imagine that!)

He published a book on this type of strategy called Permission Marketing, which got him kicked out of the Direct Marketing Association, likely because of how much it challenged the status quo. Today, Godin is in the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame. He gave us a few insights for today’s email marketers in our blog post on Permission Marketing.

2002: Email Goes Wireless

Early adopters of smartphones loved their BlackBerrys. The devices surged in popularity thanks in part to BlackBerry’s focus on mobile email. Released in 2002, the BlackBerry 5810 was the first device marketed as a mobile phone with email capabilities (rather than a pager).

2003: The CAN-SPAM Act

The United States set standards for regulating commercial email with legislation called Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing – better knowns as the CAN-SPAM Act. President George W. Bush signed it into law in 2003, 32 years after email’s invention.

Some critics say the law didn’t go far enough. CAN-SPAM makes it a misdemeanor to spoof a “From” field and requires a way for people to opt-out. However, the law did not make it illegal to send unsolicited email marketing messages. That prompted some to call it the “You-Can-Spam” act.

2004: Gmail Changes the Game

When Gmail launched in 2004, it raised the bar among webmail competitors. For starters, Gmail offered one whole gigabyte of storage space, which doesn’t sound like much now, but it was way more than normal at the time. Gmail also brought improved search and threaded conversations to webmail. It introduced the tabbed inbox in 2013, which added new challenges for email deliverability.

As the story goes, computer engineer Paul Buchhelt (Google employee #25) created his first version of Gmail in just one day.

2009: Delivering Email Perfection

email on acid logo

Email marketing isn’t easy. In 2009, siblings John Thies (an email developer) and Michelle “Miki” Klann (a designer) launched a new endeavor to help marketers deliver email perfection. The challenge John and Michelle faced was explaining to their clients why email clients rendered campaigns differently. So, instead of explaining the problem, they chose to create a solution.

Email on Acid provided Email Previews so teams could check out their campaigns and fix issues before hitting send. That’s still an important feature. But the platform expanded over the years to include many other pre-deployment checks, including Inbox Display, Email Accessibility, and much more!

2010: Emails Get Responsive

By 2010, Apple was already releasing the iPhone 4, and smartphones had become a must-have item. The rise of smartphones presented another challenge for email marketers. How do you optimize campaigns to be mobile-friendly?

The idea of designing and developing responsive emails emerged around 2010. According to EmailMonday, around half of all emails are now opened on mobile devices.

2012: Presidential Email Success

obama email subject lines
Courtesy: NeilPatel.com

Many marketers have praised President Barack Obama’s use of digital marketing to motivate voters and donors. Check out Neil Patel’s email marketing lessons from Obama. The president’s 2012 reelection campaign embraced social media and email marketing with great success.

The Obama campaign’s most-opened subject line simply said “Hey.” The strategy seemed awfully similar to spammy emails to former Daily Show host, Jon Stewart.

An interesting fact about the CAN-SPAM Act? Political campaigns are not subject to it.

2014: Canada Fights Spam

No, folks in Canada do not call ham Canadian bacon. They do, however, know spam when they see it. Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) went further than CAN-SPAM to curb unsolicited email. As the Cakemail blog points out, Canada’s law requires permission or some sort of action before receiving an email, but CAN-SPAM does not. CASL also applies to text messaging, social media, and other digital communications.

2016: Women of Email

The practice of email marketing has grown immensely over the years. Self-described “email geeks” come in all forms. In 2016, veteran email marketers Jen Capstraw, April Mullen, and Kristin Bond co-founded the Women of Email professional network to promote female leadership in the industry.

You can read more about Women of Email here on our blog, and you can hear Jen Capstraw talk about the history of email in our webinar with emfluence.

2018: Protecting Privacy

While Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act may have caused some headaches for email marketers, it’s also encouraged us to get better at our jobs.

Most people actively avoid email marketing. Convincing people to opt-in (and stay in) is tough to do, especially with all the noise out there. But it’s worth the effort. So is protecting the data and privacy of the people who willingly subscriber to your emails. Transparency, security, and empathy are important if we want email to continue to be an effective channel in the future.

2020: A Year that Changed Everything

While email has gone through many evolutions over the decades, the entire world changed in 2020, and email marketing changed with it.

Email was extremely important for crisis communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, there were changes like the shift to remote work and online learning, the increasing adoption of eCommerce, and the impact of economic ups-and-downs.

Find out how all of these things and more affected the practice of email marketing and make a plan for the future. Download our special report, Email Marketing and the Next Normal, to get a 10-step email marketing action plan for 2021 and beyond.

email marketer works on 2021 action plan
Stop Email Disasters Before They Strike!

It’s an email marketer’s worst nightmare. You hit the send button and an important campaign goes out with an ugly, costly mistake. Make sure that never happens with our email readiness platform. Optimize your campaigns and fix mistakes – even if you’re not an HTML pro! Keep clients and customers happy when you deliver email perfection.

Start for Free

Author: Kasey Steinbrinck

Kasey Steinbrinck is Email on Acid's content marketing manager. He's created lead-generating digital marketing plans for a wide variety of organizations and understands how valuable content fuels a powerful email strategy. Kasey lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, (Go Packers) with his wife and three out-of-control boys.

Author: Kasey Steinbrinck

Kasey Steinbrinck is Email on Acid's content marketing manager. He's created lead-generating digital marketing plans for a wide variety of organizations and understands how valuable content fuels a powerful email strategy. Kasey lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, (Go Packers) with his wife and three out-of-control boys.

4 thoughts on “The History of Email: Major Milestones from 50 Years”

  1. Ray did not invent ’email’, as your headline states. As your copy notes, it already existed. There’s no documentation of its origins, but roughly 1965 is the usual reference. Again, as your copy notes, what Ray did was to /network/ the service. In fact he did not create the messaging software. Rather he upgrading the existing SNDMSG program for multi-machine messaging. That’s not a small benefit, of course.

    For more details on the history of email, take a look at
    http://emailhistory.org

  2. The ‘controversy’ you cite lacks industry support, though it might have quite a lot of marketing effort to sustain in. As an exercise, look for other email professionals who support the view of invention in the late 1970s. I haven’t found one, yet.

    The claims about what distinguish that later work requires being very specific about the technical details of what there was before and what was innovative in the later work. The article I wrote for the Washington Post is worth considering, in that regard:
    A history of e-mail: Collaboration, innovation and the birth of a system
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-innovations/a-history-of-e-mail-collaboration-innovation-and-the-birth-of-a-system/2012/03/19/gIQAOeFEPS_story.html

    also the Rand Report, written earlier than the purported, later invention — and it really only documented existing practice on the Arpanet:
    Framework and Functions of the “MS” Personal Message System
    https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/reports/2007/R2134.pdf

  3. Though Email is widely used medium of communication, many of us don’t know the history of Email till today. This article helps us to know about Email from the day of innovation till today, including how it has evolved and transformed as the most effective tool.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *