Email: Types, History & Timeline

Instructor: Mary Matthiesen-Jones

Mary has worked around the world for over 30 years in international business, advertising, and market research. She has a Master's degree in International Management and has taught University undergraduate and graduate level courses .

Worldwide, an estimated 270 billion email messages are sent every day by nearly four billion email users. Learn about the history of email and how it has become such an essential part of everyday life.

The Email Flood

While you are reading this, emails are probably arriving in your personal and work email accounts. An average office worker receives around 120 emails a day and sends 40. And that doesn't even include personal emails!

With the explosion of smartphones and other mobile devices, email reaches us wherever we are; we no longer have to be at our desks. Today about 80 percent of all email users access their email from a mobile device.

The Origins of Email

But how did email even get started? It all happened in spurts over a few decades. Let's see a timeline.

  • 1965 - The first email appeared at MIT in the form of a computer program called Mailbox. This program allowed someone to leave a message on a computer for the next person logging in to see. However, there was no Internet, so the messages only went to people using the same computer like an ePost-it.

  • 1969 - The Department of Defense launched ARPANET, short for Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, which linked computers across the organization, allowing messages to be sent from one computer to another.

  • 1971 - Ray Tomlinson invented electronic mail as we know it today, creating a networked email system for ARPANET. Digital messages could be sent and be waiting for someone. People did not have to be online at the same time. To further specify 'where' an email went, Tomlinson developed using the @ symbol, and the formula for an email address was born: username@emailaccount. Previously messages went system-wide.

The @ symbol was first used in 1971 to send emails to specific people
@ symbol

  • 1973 - The first email standard was developed, which included the 'To:' and 'From:' fields, and systems began to be developed for not just organizing emails but also for things like forwarding emails on to others.

The 1980s

Up to this point email was just used inside the government. It was proving to be so useful that the idea was raised of being able to send email messages to computers outside of that network. This led to the Internet.

  • 1988 - The first commercial email program, Microsoft Mail, was released for Apple computers, allowing users to send messages via Apple's AppleTalk Networks.

  • 1989 - The first commercial ISP or Internet Service Provider appeared, called The World.

But why the gap between 1971 and ARPANET and 1989 and the Internet for everyone? Well, the National Science Foundation had developed their own network by then (NSFNET) and prohibited commercial use of the Internet because they worried that bandwidth would be stretched too thin, hurting universities and the government.

Tech entrepreneurs objected and by 1991 the Internet as we know it today appeared. And while it was slow by today's standards because it was all dial-up, companies like America Online (AOL) and CompuServe began signing up users by the millions.

The 1990s

  • 1991 - Microsoft released Windows and DOS versions of its Microsoft Mail, setting the stage for that company's Outlook and Exchange.

  • 1992 - The ability to attach documents that were not just text was made possible with the introduction of the MIME or Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions protocol. Now we could send pictures and eventually audio and video files with our emails. Of course those large files brought with them another problem that challenges users even today - deleting emails to free up inbox space!

  • 1993 - The word email replaced the phrase 'electronic mail', and systems for organizing email came into being with programs like Outlook and companies such as Hotmail which offered free email accounts.

  • 1994 - Two lawyers in Arizona became the first recorded case of business spam, those floods of unwanted emails. They used the Internet to reach out to immigrant communities to promote their Green Card Lottery services, where they would file entries for very high fees. The two lawyers eventually lost their law licenses but spam was here to stay.

As of 2018, over five billion active email accounts exist worldwide.

Personal Vs Professional Email

With email now so broadly used, a challenge for users exists between personal and professional emails. The differences between the two is basically style and security.

Style refers to how emails are written and basic email etiquette. We speak differently to our friends and family than we do to coworkers, bosses, and clients. Professional emails are more formal and focused and should only have business-related content.

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