Who invented email and why?

Email has become an indispensable communication tool used by billions of people worldwide. But who exactly invented email, and why? Let’s dive into the history of email to find out.

The first email systems emerged in the early 1960s, built on the framework provided by the ARPANET, a predecessor to the Internet funded by the U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Different ARPANET sites began developing their own email programs for sending messages between users on the same computers. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that email started to become more widespread and interconnected.

A number of early email pioneers contributed to the development of email as we know it today. Ray Tomlinson is credited with inventing email as a networked communication system for ARPANET in 1971. Other key innovators include computer scientists Gary Thuerk, who sent the first unsolicited commercial email in 1978, and Shiva Ayyadurai, who copyrighted an interoffice email system called “EMAIL” in 1982.

The Invention of Networked Email

In 1971, Ray Tomlinson was working as a computer programmer at technology company Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), one of the organizations responsible for developing the ARPANET. He came up with the idea of a messaging system that could send notes between users on different computers connected on the ARPANET.

To do this, Tomlinson modified an existing internal messaging program called CPYNET on the company’s time-sharing computer system. He adapted the program so it could send messages across the network to other computers.

Tomlinson needed a way to identify individual users across the network. He chose the “@” symbol to separate local user names from their ARPANET host names, creating an email address format that is still used today. For example, the email address user@host.

The first email Tomlinson sent was to himself in 1971, from one machine to another sitting side by side. The first email read: “QWERTYUIOP.” By 1972, Tomlinson’s email program was adapted for use on the ARPANET, beginning the expansion of email across networks.

Early Email Adoption

During the 1970s, email continued to spread amongst ARPANET sites, though it was not yet widely used outside of the military and academic circles with access to ARPANET. Different organizations developed their own standalone email systems, but there was no interconnected email system between different networks.

Queen Elizabeth II sent the first royal email in 1976 on the ARPANET from the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. Commercial email systems also began emerging, such as IBM’s PROFS and Digital Equipment Corporation’s VAX/VMS Mail, though these were internal systems within businesses not connected to ARPANET.

Two significant developments helped expand email beyond isolated networks:

– File Transfer Protocol (FTP): Developed in 1973, FTP allowed files and programs to be transferred easily between hosts on ARPANET. This paved the way for standardized email software protocols.

– Internet and TCP/IP: Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn’s TCP/IP protocol, introduced in 1982, provided a common language for different networks to communicate. Along with the rise of the Internet, this allowed email services to interconnect.

Email Goes Commercial

A few pivotal moments propelled email into widespread public use in the 1980s and 1990s:

– First commercial email service: In 1979, a company called MCI Mail launched an email service for business users, the first commercial email provider. Other commercial services like CompuServe’s EasyLink followed.

– First mass mailing: In 1978, Gary Thuerk of Digital Equipment Corporation sent the first unsolicited email blast to 400 ARPANET users on the west coast advertising a new DEC computer system. This sparked the trend of direct marketing and mass mailing with email.

– Queen Elizabeth II sends an email: Demonstrating email’s reach into popular culture, Queen Elizabeth II sent an email from an army base in 1976, the first recorded email by a monarch.

– Microsoft Exchange: Microsoft launched its Exchange email server in 1996, expanding affordable access to business email systems.

– Hotmail: Founded in 1996, Hotmail offered one of the first free web-based email services, helping popularize personal email accounts.

– Blackberry devices: Blackberry devices, launched in 1999, provided efficient mobile access to email, supercharging email adoption. By 2009, over 80% of American adults used email.

The Origins of Spam

Within a few years of email’s invention, the first unsolicited junk emails or “spam” began circulation.

– 1978: Gary Thuerk sent the first mass email to ARPANET users on the west coast, advertising Digital’s new DECSystem-20 servers. This sparked controversy and complaints from recipients.

– Mid 1980s: Lawyers and entrepreneurs began leveraging email for promotional messages and advertisements. Email lists were sold to marketers, exponentially increasing spam.

– 1994: The first spam email selling a product (“Get RICH and Famous like me!”) was traced to a company called Internet Marketing Inc. The term “spam” came from a Monty Python comedy sketch about excess canned meat.

Anti-spam policies and filters eventually helped control the deluge of unwanted email. But spam demonstrated email’s effectiveness as a marketing tool. Businesses continue leveraging email for promotional purposes today, though with more restraint to preserve subscriber trust.

The Email Innovators

While Ray Tomlinson is credited with creating the basis for networked email, other early innovators expanded capabilities and helped popularize email.

Ray Tomlinson

– Programmer for Bolt Beranek and Newman in 1971
– Invented the first system to send messages on the ARPANET
– Chose the @ symbol to separate the user and host in email addresses

Gary Thuerk

– Digital Equipment Corporation marketing manager in 1978
– Sent the first unsolicited promotional email blast to ARPANET users
– Spurred the trend of commercial email marketing

Shiva Ayyadurai

– A high school student in 1979, attended University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
– Created an interoffice email system called “EMAIL” in 1982, later copyrighted
– Credited by some as the “inventor of email” based on this system

Queen Elizabeth II

– Sent the first royal email in 1976 over ARPANET
– Helped popularize email as the first monarch to use it

Raymond Samuel Tomlinson

– Created the @ symbol system for addressing emails in 1971
– Sent the first ARPANET email to himself as a test
– His system set conventions still used for email today

Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn

– Computer scientists who developed TCP/IP protocol in 1982
– Provided a common language for computer networks to communicate
– TCP/IP was instrumental in interconnecting email systems

The Motivations Behind Inventing Email

What spurred early email pioneers to develop these systems? Their motivations stemmed from practical needs within the organizations and networks they belonged to.

Time-sharing Systems

In the 1960s and 70s, time-sharing computer systems allowed multiple users to access a central computer through terminals. This allowed sharing of resources, but users lacked an easy way to send messages and files. Early email systems like Tomlinson’s solved this problem, letting users on the same system message each other.

ARPANET Communication

ARPANET connected various academic and military sites for research purposes. Email fulfilled the need for an efficient way for ARPANET users to communicate and transfer files across the network.

Academic Collaboration

Researchers relied on ARPANET email for collaboration. Email facilitated conversation between scientists in different locations, revolutionizing remote research.

Military Coordination

The ARPANET network was funded by the U.S. military for secure communications. Email enabled easy coordination and messaging between sites.

Office Communication

Within organizations, shared interoffice email systems like Shiva Ayyadurai’s EMAIL increased efficiency. Workers could quickly send documents, messages, and memos instead of using paper mail.

Accessible Personal Communication

Early public online services like Compuserve and Hotmail made email available for general use. This fulfilled the public’s growing appetite for personal electronic communications.

The Technical Components of Early Email

While we take them for granted now, early forms of email had limited technical capabilities and components compared to email today.

User Addressing

Ray Tomlinson created the basis for modern email addressing. The user@host format allowed specifying recipients across multiple systems. Early addresses were often tied to the hardware, like user@PDP-1.

Text-based messages

Early email only supported plain text. Formatting like fonts, graphics and rich text came later. Since connections were slow, text minimized data transfer needs.

Store and forward

Most early email relied on the store-and-forward model. Messages were stored on each computer and forwarded in batches when the receiving computer was connected.

Limited networking

Initially email only worked between users on the same computer or network. Internet and TCP/IP had to emerge before independent systems could intercommunicate.

Command line interfaces

Users had to memorize and input text commands to operate most early email programs since graphical user interfaces did not yet exist.

Single-purpose application

Early email programs were standalone and had no other features. Modern email clients like Outlook provide a suite of tools beyond just email.

Minimal security

Early email had almost no security or privacy measures. Authentication and encryption had to be added later to secure email.

No delivery receipts

Unlike modern email, early systems couldn’t confirm if an email was successfully received and opened. Read receipts were a later innovation.

Key Differences Between Early and Modern Email

Email has transformed since its humble beginnings over 50 years ago. Some key differences between early email and email today:

Early Email Modern Email
Limited networking between some organizations and systems Universal interconnected system between billions of users worldwide
Only text-based messages Formatted messages, graphics and attachments
Command line interfaces Graphical user interfaces
Client software stored on each local computer Web access from any Internet-connected device
Limited security features Encryption, spam filters and authentication
Store-and-forward delivery Instant delivery
Used primarily within organizations Ubiquitous global personal communication medium

The Significance of Early Email Systems

The initial email systems of the 1960s and 1970s formed the foundation for the email infrastructure used by billions of people across the planet today. Some of the key impacts and significance:

Interconnected global communication

Early networked email enabled cross-organization and eventually global communications, linking people and ideas around the world.

Rapid digital communication

Email provided nearly instant communications compared to traditional postal mail, accelerating information exchange.

Democratized written communications

Email made exchanging messages affordable and accessible for the public, not just large organizations.

Facilitated remote collaboration

Long distance work and research became far easier with the ability to quickly share data and ideas via email.

Reduced paper waste

By digitizing written communications that previously used physical paper, email helped cut waste and environmental impact.

Enhanced workplace productivity

Email enabled faster business workflows and coordination between employees.

Inspired modern digital communications

Email pioneered concepts like messaging, addresses and networking that shaped all later digital communications from texting to social media.


In just over 50 years, email has revolutionized human communications and collaboration. Though invented for a military network, it has become a universally used tool. The core innovations like addressing and store-and-forward relay pioneered by Ray Tomlinson and others remain at the foundation of all email systems today. Without these pioneering developers who saw the potential of networked messaging, our entire digital infrastructure for communication could look completely different.