On the history of email (a reply)

📅 Published 2021-10-21

Gerikson commented the following in his reply to my own reply discussing a change in the nature of email:

his reply

my own reply

I'm old enough to have actually sent letters. Emails for me (I got my first account in 1992) were never like letters.

The "letter writing" metaphor only ever extended to the external form - "mail", "mailbox", "delivery". From the first get-go emails were less formal than letters, more like postcards.

I got my first email account around the same time, although I was very young, so I used my email as nearly all young people did--casually. So perhaps I'm not a good judge of this. But my perception was certainly that adults were more formal in their email usage, for a time.

This reply led me to question my own perceptions, and I did a little research. First of all, I must admit that I was flat out wrong about the originating metaphor for email. Tom Van Vleck's article "The History of Email" makes this very clear. At MIT, email originated as a way for users to send short notifications on the CTSS, or Compatible Time-Sharing System.

The History of Email

The following passage really drives it home:

A proposed CTSS MAIL command was described in an undated Programming Staff Note 39, "Minimum System Documentation" by Pat Crisman, Glenda Schroeder, and Louis Pouzin. ... Among other topics, PSN 39 suggested creation of a facility that would allow any CTSS user to send a message to any other. The proposed uses were communication from "the system" to users informing them that files had been backed up, communication to the authors of commands with criticisms, and communication from command authors to the CTSS manual editor. ...

The idea of sending "letters" using CTSS was initially resisted by management, as a waste of resources. However, CTSS Operations did need a facility to inform users when a request to retrieve a file from tape had been completed, and we proposed MAIL as a solution for this need.

It began as a very minimal protocol, but it did grow features over time, as most protocols do.

We didn't send between computers because we had only one computer. We didn't send graphics because nobody had a graphics terminal. We didn't have SUBJECT, or other mail headers; but conventions rapidly sprang up. We limited messages in size because disk space was very scarce and expensive.

I also found this quote to be entertaining, especially in light of my observation that mailed letters have a tangible cost:

There was a lot of nervousness in the mid 60s about ticking off the US Post Office. Calling our facility MAIL was thought by some to be a Bad Idea, because they feared the Post Office would require the destruction of a first class stamp for each message sent. If you put a personal note in a parcel, the rule then was that you were supposed to cancel and attach first class postage, because the US Post Office had a monopoly on mail transmission.

The article also goes on to note the invention of instant messenging (1965!) and other early developments in email. (I also enjoyed the linked article The Risks of Electronic Communication, originally from 1995 but perhaps more relevant than ever today.)

The Risks of Electronic Communication

Moving on, I thought that investigating old mailing lists might lend some clues to the evolution of email. Exploration of the human-nets mailing list from the 1980s shows that most messages consist of distinct paragraphs, and many have a letter-like structure. However, when I compare this with the Gemini mailing list, there isn't too much of a difference, on average. So perhaps mailing list culture hasn't changed much!


Further research also led me to the first US Presidential email, which, being a formal message between heads of state, does read like a traditional letter. I also found this Today Show clip from 1995 that makes the "letter" metaphor explicit, although it mostly discusses the concept in the context of business. It makes sense that business and government would adopt a more formal approach to their email writing when transitioning from physical letters, but I still wonder about how personal emails were composed during this time period. If anyone knows of a public archive containing early personal emails (published with permission), please share!

first US Presidential email

Today Show clip


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