Who sent the first e-mail?

December 13th, 2006


I’ve always asked myself who sent the first e-mail, ever and whether if he was aware of the fact that he would be starting an evolutionist era for the future generations. For those of you who had asked themselves this question at least once until now, and for those of you who are just curious in finding out the answer, I have searched around and found a few hints.

I like to think that the sending of the first e-mail message was of the same impact of the first phone call ever made, or the one of the first telegram ever sent. Huge.

It might be disappointing, but the first e-mail message wasn’t much of an informational one. But I’ll start with the beginning. Before the Internet, there was a computer network called ARPANET, developed by the U.S. Defense Department with the help of a company called Bolt, Beranek and Newman.

To skip to the point, the first message was sent by Ray Tomlinson, a computer engineer at the above mentioned company, in 1971. He was located in Cambridge, Massachusetts and he sent an e-mail message from his computer to another computer right next to him. It was a test message, it appears. Something like “QWERTYUIOP”. He was actually playing around with two programs called SNDMSG and READMAIL that allowed users to leave messages to each other on the same machine. He merged the two files with a third program called CYPNET (a file sharing program, between computers). The combined technology allowed people to send and receive files that could be appended between different machines.

Despite his success with the e-mail, Ray Tomlinson is better known to the general population as the guy who introduced the “@” locator in e-mail addresses. Like I said in the beginning, I wonder if he realized the impact he will cause. What do you think?

Sphere this entry┬╗


  1. Mike Dallos:

    Very interesting!!


    Be well…

  2. Stevland Ambrose:

    Related good reading:

    Reaction to the DEC Spam of 1978


  3. Russ Matthews:

    Thank you for doing the legwork on this… actually I was just thinking about the advent of e-mail on my way to work today! What got me thinking about it was thinking about all the FAX machines in “Back to the Future” and how e-mail kind of came out of left field and took the place of the FAX for most things. Excellent info and great timing. Thanks!

  4. Frode Hegland:

    Well, it depends how you define email. Does it only mean outside a single network, as in before ARPANET? Then early AOL mail was not email. If you mean inside a single network or system, then you could count messaging on NLS, way back in the middle sixties at Doug Engelbart’s lab. For more have a look at the Invisible Revolution site if you are interested: http://www.invisiblerevolution.net It’s all fuzzy but there is no question that Ray is an important pioneer.

  5. vs:

    Very interesting! Where did you dig up this history trivia from?

  6. Kevin:

    I’ve had teh pleasure of working with Ray Tomlinson on a History Channel Documentary about 6 years ago while he was with GTE Internetworking (BBN). He’s a very nice man and will tell you himslef that he never expected the @ symbol to take off the way it did (you can see his interview if you find the History Channel documentary). Additionaly, last I heard, Ray was still with BBN and working hard in his little office in Cambridge, MA.

  7. Etherfast:

    @vs : I just thought of the question, then searched for the answer. A few searches were enough to make the idea, then I developed it into an article ;)

  8. Chester:

    I’ve asked myself this question every single day until day. Tis a great day to celebrate. JK. Great article, I actually read about this many years ago…thanks for the refresher!

  9. Shaun Stevens:

    And from that humble beginning we have our current plague of Spam.

  10. tony:

    probably wasn’t too hard to figure out…


  11. wws:

    Samuel Morse sent the first e-mail message.
    He coded “What hath God wrought?”
    And his assistant 50 miles away replied
    That first message got screwed up and e-mail has been a mess ever since.

  12. Etherfast:

    E-mail comment from Paul Meyer:

    “Arpanet was not the first wide-area computer network, let alone the first to
    carry email. Though it was the ancestor of the modern internet – in fact,
    that’s too weak a term, the modern internet was originally just Arpanet
    expanded beyond the original limited research community into a commercial
    product – email was old long before that happened.

    Email in the general form we use today – a text message typed by one person
    and carried digitally to one or more individual recipients – dates back to
    the early 1970s, where it was a feature of DECnet and Plato. (Both of these
    are worth pages of history themselves, between the two of them you will find
    the basic concepts of pretty much everything we do on the internet today,
    from hypertext to games to email.)

    Slightly later, roughly parallel in evolution to the classified ARPAnet, was
    an academic network known as Bitnet. Email was the primary feature of bitnet,
    and it even had a limited ability to auto-route messages (that is, specify a
    receiver’s address but not the path by which to reach it). But membership was
    restricted to academic institutions.

    The first really world-wide email system was the UUCP network, which was a
    much lower bandwidth system based on intermittent but often scheduled modem
    connections between individual computers. UUCP was originally intended for
    file transfer but a special protocol for email messages was deployed almost
    as soon as it went operational. Almost all of what you think of as internet
    email was present in UUCP, and in fact some of the rules about the way email
    is formatted for transmission still reflect the limitations of the UUCP
    system. The only thing that is different about internet email is the ability
    to use intelligent pathing based on domain addressing. For UUCP you had to
    actually know the path from your computer to the destination and include it
    in your address.

  13. flatrat:

    we used to use radioteletype autostart and leave printed messages on each others machines…I guess you could say that was “e” mail…

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