In Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49, our protagonist, the lost and broken but brave Oedipa Maas, finds herself in a southern California bar after closing time at an aerospace plant. The assembled workers—techno-libertarians—speak to her in conspiratorial whispers with an edge of paranoia (a recurring theme in Pynchon). She begins to grasp the dim outline of a kind of postal system, outside the US government; a secret one, maybe new, maybe hundreds of years old. She spends the rest of the book grasping at a world just outside her normal scope.
The book wasn’t about email, and the aerospace workers were passing along real, physical letters. But the context of the book—the military industry in late 60s California—was one of the precursors to a world of digital communication. In America, at a time when most TVs were still black-and-white, a different kind of communication was being born. Pynchon wasn’t writing about email (I mean, probably), but the world he created, one of a secret kind of communication network most of us couldn’t imagine, dovetailed neatly with reality. The history of email is more haphazard than you might expect, but it fits with the way the internet has changed our lives.
The First Emails: Post-It-Note ex machina
In our last post, we talked about the history of fax machines. As it turns out, the fax machine is far older than many people realize. Email isn’t quite as old, but it might surprise you to know that it actually predates ARPAnet, the original series of connected computers that led to the Internet. The first electronic mail was barely mail at all; it was more like a collection of Post-It notes. People shared computers, but most had their own files and folders, so someone would just leave a file with a note in a directory where the other person could look at it. The first formalized system was MAILBOX, which was developed at MIT in the early 60s (it evolved from 1961 to 1965). This was true electronic mail, but the limitation was that it could only be sent inside the same computer. Of course, back then computers were enormous and could have 100 users, but there was still work to be done.
APRAnet and the Invention of @
As we said, ARPAnet was the first internet system used by the military and associated contractors and academics. It was a new world of connected computers, later giving birth to the World Wide Web. It was used to share information and work, and of course it needed a method of communication. With so many users in so many places, what could be done?
Enter Ray Tomlinson. Tomlinson was an ARPAnet contractor, working for the impossibly-Pynchonian-named Bolt Beranek and Newman. He lifted the “@” off the keyboard and created the first real mailboxes. This innovation occurred before email systems, so the format that was chosen included the name of the user and the name of the computer. For example, if your message was being sent within the RAND contracting network, one would address mail to m.fallopian@rand. The first email Tomlinson sent? According to lore, it was the prophetic “QWERTYUIOP”
It wasn’t until ten years later that people saw the growing need to start instituting distinctions because, up until then, there simply weren’t enough people “online.” In 1981, the American Standard Code for Information Exchange adopted the letters, symbols, and punctuation that we use today.
In 1971, Tomlinson sent the first electronic missive that closely resembles what we now think of as email. In 1981, a corresponding standardized system was developed. The next big step- and by step we mean “largest leap in human communication in history- was in 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. At that point, few of us had any idea what the outcome would be, but email quickly became the dominating presence of life on the web.
Let’s fast-forward another 10 years, to 2001. By now, it was very strange if you didn’t have an email account. You’ve Got Mail, which seemed a little outdated at the time, was already three years old. Hotmail and Yahoo were dominant, and AOL was still pretty popular. Email wasn’t some amazing futuristic novelty anymore; rather, it was how we communicated. Millions, then billions, then trillions of emails were sent every year.
Yes, there were problems. Spam was a huge issue before better filters were invented. We’re still figuring out the rules. We also hear every year how email is outdated and how texts or Twitter or Instagram is going to dominate. That never quite comes to pass, though.
At work and home, we still use email to exchange documents, notes, and ideas. The cloud is beginning to cut into that traffic, but email is still our primary mode of communication, whether we are on a laptop or a tablet.
We’re still in the early days of the internet. Given that almost no one even notices anymore how amazing instant communication is, it’s staggering to think that in 1991, very few of us even imagined it possible. It isn’t mysterious anymore, and it isn’t conspiratorial. If you take a step back, though, and consider how weird it is, historically, you can see those dim outlines of a fantastic world that was born in secrecy decades ago, and created ours.