It’s become a firm fixture of everyday life, loathed by some but essential to nearly all of us, and yet its future is far from certain. Email is forty years old this month, with the first message having been sent in October 1971.

The birth of email

Like many technological innovations, email has its roots in military technology. In the late 1960s, MIT graduate Ray Tomlinson was working at research and development firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman. His work included contributing to technologies related to the ARPANET, the military communications network that was the earliest form of the Internet. This included a file transfer program for mainframe computers. With this file transfer experience, Tomlinson was assigned to modify a program called SNDMSG, which allowed messages to be sent between different users of the same computer – this was in the days when computers were incredibly expensive, and the idea of one person having a computer to themselves was impractical. His task was to allow messages to be sent between two different computers, and in October 1971 he cracked it. As Tomlinson told The Times in 2008, he doesn’t remember what that first email actually said – perhaps ‘QWERTY’ or another string of characters, but whatever it was, it traveled a distance of one meter between two separate computers. One small step for a message, one giant leap for mankind. Besides inventing email, Tomlinson is also the man to thank for the popularity of the ‘@’ symbol. He established the convention of an email ‘address’ in order to identify the recipient and the computer or network that they were using. To separate these two pieces of information, he chose ‘@’. He told The Times, ”It conveyed a sense of place, which seemed to suit.”

The growth, growth and growth of email

Email use on ARPANET quickly took off after that first message in 1971, but it wasn’t embraced on a wide scale until the 1990s when the birth of the World Wide Web led to consumers embracing the Internet. By the end of that decade, it had become an essential part of working life in many offices around the world. Back in 2001, the School of Information Management and Systems at UC Berkley reported that around 31 billion emails were sent daily. By 2008, that figure had risen to 170 billion each day, at a rate of 2 million per second. It hasn’t stopped accelerating; Pingdom reported that in 2010, the daily rate was 294 billion.

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