The History of Email

Ray Tomlinson invented internet-based email in late 1971

Man Working on a Laptop in a Modern Office
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Electronic mail (email) is a way of exchanging digital messages between people using different computers. 

Email operates across computer networks, which in the 2010s, pretty much means the internet. Some early email systems required the writer and the recipient to both be online at the same time, sort of like instant messaging. Today's email systems are based on a store-and-forward model. Email servers accept, forward, deliver, and store messages.

Neither the users nor their computers are required to be online simultaneously; they need to connect only briefly, typically to a mail server, for as long as it takes to send or receive messages.

From ASCII to MIME

Originally an ASCII text-only communications medium, Internet email was extended by Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) to carry text in other character sets and multimedia content attachments. International email, with internationalized email addresses, has been standardized, but as of 2017, not widely adopted. The history of modern, global Internet email services reaches back to the early ARPANET, with standards for encoding email messages proposed as early as 1973. An email message sent in the early 1970s looks very similar to a basic text email sent today.

Email played an important part in creating the Internet, and the conversion from ARPANET to the Internet in the early 1980s produced the core of the current services.

The ARPANET initially used extensions to the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) to exchange network email, but this is now done with the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP).

Ray Tomlinson's Contributions

Computer engineer Ray Tomlinson invented internet-based email in late 1971. Under ARPAnet, several major innovations occurred: email (or electronic mail), the ability to send simple messages to another person across the network (1971).

Ray Tomlinson worked as a computer engineer for Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), the company hired by the United States Defense Department to build the first Internet in 1968.

Ray Tomlinson was experimenting with a popular program he wrote called SNDMSG that the ARPANET programmers and researchers were using on the network computers (Digital PDP-10s) to leave messages for each other. SNDMSG was a "local" electronic message program. You could only leave messages on the computer that you were using for other persons using that computer to read. Tomlinson used a file transfer protocol that he was working on called CYPNET to adapt the SNDMSG program so it could send electronic messages to any computer on the ARPANET network.

The @ Symbol

Ray Tomlinson chose the @ symbol to tell which user was "at" what computer. The @ goes in between the user's login name and the name of his/her host computer.

What Was the First Email Ever Sent?

The first email was sent between two computers that were actually sitting beside each other. However, the ARPANET network was used as the connection between the two. The first email message was "QWERTYUIOP".

Ray Tomlinson is quoted as saying he invented email,"Mostly because it seemed like a neat idea." No one was asking for email.