By Elinor Carmi

21 November 2014 - 11:29

'"Spam" is said to come from a classic Monty Python sketch, in which the canned meat is shown as ubiquitous.' Photo (c)
'"Spam" is said to come from a classic Monty Python sketch, in which the canned meat is shown as ubiquitous.' Photo ©

freezelight, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

We're continuing to count down our series on the 80 moments that shaped the world over the past 80 years. Today we turn to number 26, the invention and widespread use of email. Elinor Carmi, a PhD candidate at the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmith’s College in London, explains.

How is email different from letters?

Whenever a new technology emerges, people tend to talk about it in stark terms of good or bad. But most of the time, it's just different. One important difference between electronic mail and previous forms of written communication is scale. With email, you can send the same message to many people in different parts of the world simultaneously, without extra cost or any need for replication.

Another difference is time: unlike 'snail mail', you don’t have to go to the post office or a post box to send an email, and you don't have to wait for it to be delivered. Instead, your message is sent and received immediately.

A third difference is durability: your message lasts in the same shape and form and does not deteriorate over time.

There's also a fourth difference in cost. Today, sending messages by email is much cheaper, regardless of how much the content ‘weighs’.

More subtle differences between emails and handwritten letters include the way emails are written, or typed. Email has standardised writing, in the sense that people normally use a default font, colour and size when they type; whereas in the past, your handwriting would be a sort of signature, which, some graphologists even argue, could give clues about your whole personality.

One more difference is the fact that you can have as many email addresses as you like. Previously, mail was sent to your physical residence and addressed to your birth name. Having several email accounts allows people to have multiple personalities or identities, while separating and managing their different kinds of communication.

Reading a letter is a richer sensory experience than email

Email also affects the way we use our senses in the communication process. In the past, touching the paper of a letter was part of the experience of reading it. Sometimes, smell was also involved: people sprayed perfume on love letters to make their messages more seductive. With electronic mail, the senses that are at work are vision, and to a lesser extent hearing, if you are sending videos from, say, YouTube or music from SoundCloud.

Email may reduce paper waste, but electronic waste also damages our environment

Although email is considered to be more environmentally friendly, the amount of electronic waste created by media companies is enormous. Smartphones and tablets are produced in Asia, exploiting workers and natural resources, to make devices with components that pollute nature once they are thrown away. For example, media scholar Professor Sean Cubitt describes how computer screens are made from cathode ray tubes (CRTs), which contain toxic materials. Legislators have banned these CRTs from being thrown into landfills in the US and the EU, but not in China and Africa, where they harm animals, plants and humans.

How was email invented?

The exact dates, people, and places involved in the birth of email are disputed, according to competing ideologies. But perhaps the first technology to allow a message to transfer between two machines was Mailbox, developed in the early 1960s on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Compatible Time-Sharing System. A decade later, a more useful system was developed -- an internal packet switching network at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defence, called ARPANET.

Between 1972 and the early 1980s, email was called network mail, and the options were much more limited, as bandwidth was a scarce resource. The first email was sent  in 1971, between two machines that were actually placed next to each other, by the American computer programmer Raymond Tomlinson. He sent the message to himself, and it said 'QWERTYUIOP'.

Tomlinson worked for the American technology company Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), which was hired by ARPA to help build what would become the Internet. The mail programme Tomlinson developed was initially designed as a file transfer protocol called CPYNET. It consisted of two separate programmes: SNDMSG to send mail, and READMAIL to receive it. The two programmes were not originally intended to be used on the ARPANET, but on a local network of computers. A 'mailbox' was essentially a computer file with a particular name, which acted as the 'address'. The innovation was that other people could write more stuff at the end of the file, but could not read or change what was written before that.

Tomlinson also chose the @ symbol to be part of an email address. He picked it because he thought it could not possibly be part of anyone's name, and therefore would suit email addresses perfectly, as the addresses needed to separate users from the machines they used. However, there were disputes about the symbol and about what should be written on either side of it, as well as objections from rival computer programmers who were already using the @-sign to send a 'line kill' command (a request in operating systems to terminate a process).

Today’s most popular email services are Google, Yahoo! and Hotmail. The latter was very creative in promoting its product in its early days. Each email that was sent from a free Hotmail account in the late 1990s contained a promotion line from the company: 'Get Your Private, Free E-mail at'. According to Radicati’s research, in 2014, the number of emails (business and personal) sent and received per day was 196 billion.

How are emails structured?

Every email has three main features: the header, the body of the message, and a stamp that catalogues the time and date that you sent the message. You can also add other information to the message such as text files, images and sounds. Messages can be written in plain text or Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), which was invented by Timothy Berners-Lee in 1990, and allows you to modify the content of the message by adding hyperlinks, and images inside the message and not as an attachment. Symbols such as @ instead of 'at' and various emoticons have also become widespread. Emoticons occur mostly in communication between friends and family, and are usually frowned upon when sent to work colleagues.

Email etiquette hasn't changed that much since 1985

One of the first guidelines for email ethics and etiquette was written in 1985 by Norman Shapiro and Robert Anderson. They warned against misinterpretations arising from the fact that casual and formal email messages look the same. They advised readers that 'if you must express emotion in a message, clearly label it', 'avoid responding while emotional', and 'if a message generates emotions, look again'.

The authors also mentioned flaming, meaning aggressive and unfriendly messages between co-workers. Throughout the years, flaming has developed and can be expressed by using Caps Lock to write in capital letters, which creates the impression of shouting, or by using lots of different symbols like %£#& to stand in for swearing, or just one symbol many times: ????!!!!!.

How did spam develop?

The word 'spam' may bring sour faces to those who think of the maligned canned meat, and smiles to those who remember Monty Python’s famous sketch that aired in 1970. The Monty Python sketch also allegedly inspired the name for unsolicited bulk email, as spam is shown as an unavoidable ingredient on the menu.

Unwanted forms of information have existed since the inception of media technologies, because one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Essentially, spam is a subjective thing, and perceptions of what is 'spammy' depend on the accepted etiquette in a specific period and culture. The first spam, according to Brad Templeton, was sent on 3 May 1978. Gary Thuerk, a promoter from the computer firm DEC Company sent an advertisement email to 320 addresses of ARPANET personnel, which resulted in a complaint made by the managers of ARPANET, the Defence Communications Agency (DCA).

Spam is a hotly debated topic in most Western countries, because it involves two of the most important things in capitalism -- time and money. Spam is considered to waste people’s time, and in the early 1990s, and also after the dot-com crash in 2000, it was essential to win back people's trust on the Internet. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) set up a Task Force on Spam, which suggested that one way to combat spam was to label the type of message in the subject line of the email. For example, when sending an advertisement, you would indicate in the header ‘ADV’.

The social media scholar and researcher Dana Boyd writes that the giant email services often toss her emails into spam folders since she hosts her email on a domain she controls. She also says that because African people are the usual suspects for sending spam (as in the notorious Nigerian prince scam) they often find their emails blocked by American webmail services through their IP addresses, which give away your location. Bill Gates' prediction in 2004 that 'spam will be solved' within two years might have been slightly optimistic. Not only did spam not disappear, it exploded exponentially, with around 97 billion spam emails sent every day in 2013.

What are the issues around email privacy and law?

Because our email addresses are perceived as private space, electronic 'envelopes' aren't needed. In past centuries, letters were sealed and stamped with distinctively coloured wax, both to ensure privacy, and to signal the letter's origin. Today, it is assumed that you are the only one who will receive and read an email, and therefore the privacy of the content does not need extra forms of concealment.

However, the protection of email privacy is of great concern to the European Union. In the Charter for Fundamental Rights of the European Union from 2000, Article 7, Respect for private and family life, outlines the right to respect of communication privacy.

Privacy matters are still one of the European Commission's core debates, especially since Edward Snowden's revelations and when companies such as Google were recently exposed as reading every email. If you are an activist, a journalist or simply concerned about privacy issues, you might want to use an encrypted email such as StartMail in order to avoid third parties such as companies and governments reading your email.

In the context of its 80th anniversary, the British Council has produced — with the help of eminent experts and the public in ten countries — a ranking of the top 80 moments, developments, individuals, and changes of the last 80 years. Today, we reveal moments 40 to 21:

21. The discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953
22. The invention of the birth control pill
23. Space exploration, including the achievements of Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space (1961), and the Apollo 11 moon landing (1969)
24. The first public television service in 1936
25. The development of nanotechnology
26. The invention and widespread use of email
27. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, leading to the reunification of Germany in 1990
28. The creation of the state of Israel, 1948
29. The influence and achievements of Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to independence and inspired civil rights movements across the world, 1869-1948
30. The US civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King’s speech ‘I have a dream…’ of August 1963
31. The emergence of HIV/ AIDS in the early 1980s
32. The eradication of smallpox in 1980
33. The series of popular protests and uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, beginning in 2010, known as the ‘Arab Spring’
34. The invention of the credit card in 1950
35. The invention of the laser in 1960 and its influence on technology
36. The independence of countries that were former colonies of European powers
37. The Cold War, from the 1940s to the 1990s
38. The development of open-source software and open licensing, where computer source code is made available to the public with relaxed or non-existent copyright restrictions
39. The invention of the CT scanner, 1972
40. China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics

What is your view? We want to know if you agree or disagree with the top 40 - 21. Which missing moment, person or innovation do you think should be in the list?

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