Email Turns 50

It’s been fifty years since the process we now call email was first invented. E-communications have changed enormously since Ray Tomlinson first created a method to send messages between users and machines, evolving from an intriguing experiment to one of the most important elements of digital life. In celebration of a half-century of email, we’re taking a look back at some of the major milestones along the way.


Tomlinson “invented” email in 1971, when the American computer programmer created the method we now use for email – although he wasn’t the first to invent any sort of digital communications. In 1965, users at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used the “Compatible Time-Sharing System” to share messages and files on a central system that could be accessed from remote terminals. Tomlinson’s contribution was what we would think of as the defining feature of emails: the @ sign.


It was Tomlinson who introduced the “@” sign as a means of allowing messages to be sent directly to specific users on specific machines, starting with his work on the pre-Internet “Arpanet” at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Over the next several years, the email format slowly became standardized, with now must-have elements like sender and recipient fields and the concept of forwarding being introduced throughout the 1970s.


Although we can pretty clearly trace the origins of email from its earliest days to today, one thing that remains a mystery is the actual coinage of the term “email.” Even the Oxford English Dictionary, which is unmatched in its ability to catalog the first known origins of an enormous array of words and terms, cannot confirm the first usage. The first usage its researchers can trace is in the headline of a 1979 article in a scientific journal, but the very fact of its presence in a headline suggests that it was already a known term at the time. Most likely, its first usage was somewhere in very early networked computing conversations.


By the early 1990s, some new advancements propelled email into a new era. In 1991, the creation of the World Wide Web gave email a new avenue for operations and moved it closer to the technology we use today. Attachments arrived in 1992, and, in 1994, the most dreaded part of email technology came into being: spam. The first known spam, called the “Green Card Spam,” originated with a pair of married lawyers, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, on Usenet. The couple spammed thousands of Usenet groups with an ad for their services to do the paperwork necessary to enter the U.S. green card lottery. It caused so many complaints that it crashed the system and got them banned from their mail service.


Since then, spam has become an expected (and enormous) part of daily life in an email-heavy world. As of September 2020, researchers estimated that 47% of the world’s entire volume of email is spam.


In 2002, three decades after the “invention” of email, UC Berkeley did a study on the usage of email at the time, revealing how much email had grown into a part of everyday life. The study found that email generated 400,000 TB of information annually, with 31 billion emails sent every day and email usage accounting for 35% of all time spent online. The data on work email seems almost charmingly quaint in comparison to today. UC Berkeley’s researchers found that 60% of workers received fewer than 10 emails per day; by 2015, the average worker received 121 daily emails!


The advent of mobile devices contributed even further to the increase in email volume and usage. In 2003, Blackberry became the first device to office mobile email. By 2007, the popularity of the iPhone had helped make mobile email even more common. Thanks to the email boom, marketing emails have taken up an increasingly large share, both of the email landscape and the marketing landscape.


As of October 2019, marketing emails had an average 21.3% open rate and 2.6% click-through rate. In total, business and consumer emails exceeded 306 billion per day in 2020. That volume is expected to grow to over 361 billion by 2024. It’s clear that email marketing remains a crucial part of any marketing strategy in the 21st century. The key is finding the right tools to stand out in a crowded inbox, bring in new customers and retain old ones. As email continues to evolve, stay creative and evolve along with it – your bottom line will thank you!