Evolution of the inbox: The tech and history behind email

When was the last time you checked your email? Last night? This morning? Ten minutes ago? If you’re like me, your inbox is open right at this very moment. But do you ever think about how we got here?

Probably not, or at least, not that often.

After all, on average, people sent and received 269 billion emails a day in 2017. With that number of emails flying through the proverbial wires, no one is going to muse about the history of digital communications every time they check their inbox.

The truth is if we placed your most recent email next to the very first message ever sent across a network, the two wouldn’t look very similar. What started out as a way to send rudimentary text-messages has evolved to include features like videos and gifs and images (oh my), all for the purpose of keeping emails interesting and relevant. What we now know as email has adapted to keep up with changing technologies as well as changing consumer demands.

As email changes, so too does email marketing. And it’s no surprise why: the average inbox holds—prepare yourself—about 8,000 messages. With that kind of competition, every email marketing campaign has to be at the cutting edge of shifting trends in order to stand out from the crowd. That means that every email marketer has to learn and grow right along with technology.

But despite the countless adaptations to email since its birth, creating high-quality content remains as important as ever. Email has always been—and will always be—about delivering value to customers’ inboxes, whether you’re sending a highly-personalized email marketing campaign in the 21st century or you’re Ray Tomlinson sending messages to colleagues who wouldn’t answer their phones in 1971.

Read on to discover how email has changed over time and how it will remain relevant in the future:

Evolution of the inbox: the tech and history behind email

Ready? Jump into our Delorean because we’re about to take a trip back in time.

In the beginning: Where email started

Before the internet existed as we know it today, it existed in its primordial form developed by the US Department of Defense, the Arpanet. The Arpanet not only used many of the same technologies that became the foundation of the internet, but it also hosted the first use of email, email newsletters, and even the first spam message.

The capability to send text-based messages developed almost immediately after people learned to link computers into networks. Though several different people working on separate systems simultaneously developed ways to send text messages, what’s commonly referred to as the first email was sent via Arpanet in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson, the first person to use the “@” symbol to designate a user’s location, thus allowing messages to be sent to various locations.

The @ symbol separated the recipient of the email from their location (aka, their machine) which enabled people to send messages to different users on different computers. Before Ray added this capability to electronic messaging, people were limited to composing and reading a message on the same computer. Imagine only being able to send emails to the people who use your laptop; you’d only be able to send emails to… yourself.

Ray’s contribution of the @ symbol made it possible to connect multiple computers, which is we hhe’s commonly cited for creating modern email. Thanks for your contribution, Ray!

The controversy: Who gets the credit?

As mentioned earlier, more than one person developed different systems for sending electronic messages, which has led to a fair amount of contention over who is the true founder of email. Did you realize email was so rock and roll?

Shiva Ayyadurai claims that he invented the system we recognize as modern email when he was only 14. In 1978, Ayyadurai worked for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and was credited with creating an electronic replacement for the interoffice memo.

Ayyadurai claims he is the creator of modern-day email because his system contained the BCC, CC, and subject lines we’re all familiar with in our current inboxes. (Even the term inbox came from the paper messaging system he was attempting to replicate in his program.) In fact, Ayyadurai holds the copyright for “EMAIL,” the system he developed in 1978, and the users manual that went alongside it.

On his website, Ayyadurai adamantly disputes the claim that Ray Tomlinson invented email because, according to Ayyadurai, Tomlinson’s innovation didn’t include the forms of the interoffice memo.

However, a lot of people disparage these claims and I mean a lot. In 2012, the American History Museum acquired documents from Shiva Ayyadurai outlining the system he invented, sparking a much larger debate.

The Washington Post published an article regarding the acquisition in which they referred to Ayyadurai as the inventor of electronic messaging. The publication faced such a strong backlash that they ended up posting a correction to down-play Ayyadurai’s achievement.

The Smithsonian, also inundated with concerned citizens, published a press release to clarify that they did not refer to Ayyadurai as “the inventor of email.” The Smithsonian’s statement gets down to the heart of the matter, saying, “Many innovations are conceived independently in different settings.”

And the battle is heated. In 2012, when the controversy gained notoriety, Noam Chomsky even weighed in (he sides with Ayyadurai whom Chomsky met while they were both at MIT). Years later, Ayyadurai actually won a $35 million lawsuit against Gawker after they published articles calling Ayyadurai a fraud for making his claims.

Ultimately though, the specific person who invented email is less important than the collaboration and innovation that contributed to the development of email. Regardless of whether you’re in the Tomlinson or the Ayyadurai camp, this much we know: people needed a way to communicate quickly and easily across computers and across locations and soon electronic mail would be indispensable.

The evolution: Where email has been and where it's going

After the first email systems had been developed in the 70s, it didn’t take long before people realized the full advantages of being able to reach so many users with so little effort and thus, email marketing was born.

The first newsletter, EMMS (Electronic Mail and Message Systems), was published on December 22, 1977, via Arpanet. Dedicated to the maturing e-mail industry, the newsletter claimed to cover “technology, user, product, and legislative trends” in digital communications and ran until 2001.

Much like newsletters today, they found a niche and delivered valuable content to people who were interested in that topic; obviously, they were able to tap into a new and viable market since the newsletter continued to publish new volumes and editions for over twenty years.

Not long after the development of the world’s first email newsletter, the first spam message was sent to users on Arpanet in 1978. Gary Thuerk, a zealous marketer for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), sent an invitation to 320 users on the west coast, inviting them to product presentations.

According to Thuerk, his company didn’t have much of a west coast presence and he, like all email marketers, recognized that email would allow him access to potential customers he normally wouldn’t be able to reach.

Though Gary Thuerk’s innovation received a lot of complaints and sparked an interesting debate among Arpanet users (including the founder of the Free Software Movement saying he’d be interested in an Arpanet dating service), it also allegedly yielded about $13 million in revenue.

That’s a yield of over $40,000 per email. Not too shabby.

As technology advanced, so too did the total number of people who had access to computers. At first, only the most elite groups of computer scientists had computer networks, but as the technology became cheaper and more accessible, the need for a user-friendly email experience emerged.

The first software for email management, Eudora, was released in 1988, making it easier for people to access and adopt email by providing an easy-to-use graphical interface. Microsoft didn’t release its first version of Outlook until 8 years later in 1996, the same program that boasts millions of users today.

These innovations—the first email newsletter, the first email marketing campaign, and the software that made email user-friendly—combined with the growing number of people who utilized email on a daily basis prepared email to become one of the most effective marketing channels available today.

The state of email today

Though email has changed a lot since its inception—and even over the past few years—it remains a powerful tool for marketers, as long as they stay informed and learn with the technology.

Whether it’s a new algorithm to filter spam or the addition of tabs in Gmail, technology isn’t going to stop shifting underneath the feet of email marketing teams. And it’s not just the technology that changes; like the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 and GDPR which launched early in 2018, new legislation affecting the internet and email also emerges, forcing marketers and companies alike to adapt.

Though it might sound daunting to be continuously learning, staying up to date on email marketing best practices is worth it: every $1 spent on email tends to yield $38 ROI. Sending high-quality, relevant content remains the highest priority for email marketing, even if users qualify “relevant content” a little differently than they used to.

Today, email users expect to see personalized content that’s been tailored to their experiences and their stated preferences in their inboxes. Receiving a broad, nonspecific email like Gary Thuerk’s wouldn’t work for today’s audiences. Luckily for us, the technology has progressed, too, email marketing is easier than ever to use, allowing you to send relevant content and incorporate automation without spending hours sweating over your computer.

Wrap up

Email has evolved since the dark ages when people could only send simple, text-only messages between users on the same computer. However, some things remain as important as ever in email marketing. Successful marketers will continue to deliver value straight to their subscriber’s inbox by:

  • Creating relevant, high-quality content

  • Listening to their user’s preferences

  • Sending to the people who want to hear from them

Because every individual defines these traits differently, what matters most is that you’re listening to your subscribers and delivering the content they want to receive.

After all, though Gary Thuerk is credited with sending the first spam, reactions to his message prove that many Arpanet users didn’t think his content was irrelevant. And $13 million in revenue isn’t anything to belittle!

Putting your subscribers first will enable you to develop an email marketing strategy that stands the test of time.

About the Author

Grace Miller

Grace Miller is a content writer with a passion for grammar and the public library. When she isn't writing for Emma, she's probably writing fiction, reading another thriller, or listening to a true crime podcast.

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