Published On : Wed, Oct 10th, 2012

Email turns 40

The world today is familiar with e-mail, that has become the most preferred mode of communication across the globe. e-mail or email, short for electronic mail is a method of exchanging digital messages from an author to one or more recipients. Modern email operates across the Internet or other computer networks. Some early email systems required that the author and the recipient both be online at the same time, in common with 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.

e-mail predates the inception of internet, and it was in fact a crucial tool in creating it. Before there was the public internet there was the internet’s forerunner ARPANET or Advanced Research Projects Agency Networks. It was a project of the United States Military, set up with the aim of having a military command and control centre that could withstand nuclear attack. The purpose was to distribute information between geographically dispersed computers. But in 1971, the ARPANET was little more than connected computers.

Ray Tomilson, an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked as a computer engineer for Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), the company hired by the United States Defence Department to build and operate the APRANET .

In October 1971, Tomlinson wrote a software and was able to transfer a message from one computer to another, making it the first networked e-mail. He 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. Till then, mail or an electronic message could be sent only to others’ mail boxes, who used the same computer. Ray Tomilson chose the @ symbol to tell which user was at what computer.

“The first message was sent between two machines that were literally side by side. The only physical connection they had, apart from the floor, was through APRANET. I sent a number of test messages to myself from one machine to the other. The test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore forgotten them. Most likely the first message was QWERTYIOP or something similar.” recalls Tomilson.

At first, his email messaging system wasn’t thought to be a bid deal. When Tomilson showed what he had done to one of his colleagues, he said “Don’t tell anyone, this isn’t what we are supposed to be working on.”

Ever since US programmer Ray Tomlinson sent the first email 40 years ago, the new communication tool has taken the world by storm, but it took another 20 years or so to reach the Indian shores.