Who invented email? Electronic mail is a natural and perhaps inevitable use of networked communication technology that developed along with the evolution of the Internet. Indeed, message exchange in one form or another has existed from the early days of timesharing computers. Network capable email was developed for the ARPANET shortly after it’s creation, and has now evolved into the powerful email technology that is the most widely used application on the Internet today. Key events and milestones in the invention of email are described below:
Timesharing computers. With the development in the early 1960′s of timesharing computers that could run more than one program at once, many research organizations wrote programs to exchange text messages and even real-time chat among users at different terminals. As is often the case, more than one person at the same time noticed that it was a natural use of a new technology to extend human communications. However, these early systems were limited to use by the group of people using one computer.
SNDMSG & READMAIL. In the early 1970′s, Ray Tomlinson was working on a small team developing the TENEX operating system, with local email programs called SNDMSG and READMAIL. In late 1971, Tomlinson created the first ARPANET email application when he updated SNDMSG by adding a program called CPYNET capable of copying files over the network, and informed his colleagues by sending them an email using the new program with instructions on how to use it.
To extend the addressing to the network, Tomlinson chose the “commercial at” symbol to combine the user and host names, providing the naturally meaningful notation “user@host” that is the standard for email addressing today. These early programs had simple functionality and were command line driven, but established the basic transactional model that still defines the technology — email gets sent to someone’s mailbox.
MAIL & MLFL. In 1972, the commands MAIL and MLFL were added to the FTP program (RFC 385) to provide standard network transport capabilities for email transmission. FTP sent a separate copy of each email to each recipient, and provided the standard ARPANET email functionality until the early 1980′s when the more efficient SMTP protocol was created. Among other improvements, SMTP enabled sending a single message to a domain with more than one addressee, after which the local server would locally copy the message to each recipient.