A brief history of email

The desire to communicate is primal among most living creatures, and especially among humans. Since time immemorial, the means and techniques of communication have been worked upon and refined. The early humans communicated verbally or in writing. They used pictorial representations, still visible on ancient cave walls. If there was a physical distance between the parties that wished to communicate, messages were physically carried by a messenger. Early ‘jungle drum’ and ‘smoke signal’ transmissions were evidence of the first form of remote communication where a messenger was not physically sent to the desired destination.

Email stands for ‘electronic mail’. By this definition, the first electronic mails were sent in the last century via telegraphic transfer and Morse code transmissions.

Business extensively used the telex network for communication all over the world from the mid 1920’s through the mid 1980’s. A telex machine would connect and communicate with any other telex machine anywhere in the world, independent of the telephone network. Security was also tight as telex machines did an identifying handshake. However, to send telex messages, a dedicated telex line had to be installed and then telex messages were charged on the basis of the amount of data transmitted. This requirement of a dedicated line, made telex communication an expensive affair. Additionally, in order to use telex, a telex terminal was usually needed which needed trained operators to operate it. Surprisingly, telex is still popular all over the world, despite the growth of the Internet.

Mainframe and miniframe computers were quite popular with many large companies in the 1960’s and 1970’s. They exchanged email on these computers. Users (in this case, employees of the company) of their computers (terminals) could send messages to each other. Gradually, companies’ central systems, known as hosts, began to be connected to branch offices. Now the employees could communicate with their counterparts via email on a world wide basis.

The APRANET was developed by the US Department of Defense as part of its research on computer networks during this time. Network email was developed for the APRANET, and has now evolved into the email technology in its current form. The first APRANET email message was sent in 1971.

The late 1970’s and 1980’s saw the astronomical growth in the personal computer market with the entry of Apple and IBM. This led to the creation of new email technologies. Proprietary ‘dial up’ systems such as MCI Mail, Telecom Gold and AppleLink were to be found among these. This meant that for two people to communicate via email on these systems, both had to be subscribers. Most of these systems eventually became obsolete because they were not reliable. It should be noted here, that email messages were being sent and received by thousands of personal computer users using ‘dial up’ systems before the Internet became available for use by everybody.

Another development was taking place parallel to the above – the development of ‘LAN-based’ email systems within companies, by connecting the personal computers being used by their staff to the mainframe systems. These systems were easier to use, and more functional. They even allowed for attachments to be sent with emails.

Gradually, the use of the Internet for access to information was gaining immense popularity. With time, as more and more people had access to the Internet, email applications evolved from proprietary email systems within company networks to ‘Intranets’ which can be best described as private mini-Internets.

Hence, we can say that ‘electronic mail’ itself is not a new phenomenon. What is new is that it is more easily available on a world wide basis, is cheap and a lot easier to use.

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Email is now pervasive but how did evolve and how new is it really?

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