The history of email


My first access to “the internet” was through a dialup modem on a VAX at the FDA. I was a summer intern there through my college career and then worked full time after graduation and before grad school. My email address ended in .bitnet. I could mail some places but not others. One of the places I couldn’t send mail was to my friends back on campus.
A few of those friends were computer science majors, so one weekend they tried to help me troubleshoot things. . There were text files that they ended up searching through looking up how to send mail from .bitnet to .edu. But it was all a baffling experience. Why couldn’t it just work? I had email, they had email, why could we not talk?
I never did figure out how to send email to campus from .bitnet.
Eventually, the FDA moved from BITNET to the internet and I had a .gov address. I could send mail around just by getting the recipients’s address. But the mystery of why I could mail some .edus and not others still lingers. I wonder what our setup was that we couldn’t send mail. I’ll probably never know. I don’t even have enough details to explain the problem to someone who would know. I suspect the answer will be “bang paths” or “host.txt” files, but I really don’t know.

Image of a DEC VAX
By Emiliano Russo, Associazione Culturale VerdeBinario – VAX_11-780_all.jpg, Public Domain
That’s one of the reasons I like reading articles about email before SMTP and before email clients. Today’s article was The History of Email posted by Zach Bloom at Some things I knew, like how a line starting with the word From had to be escaped (although typically the client handled that). And that mutt is the mail client that sucks less. (I miss mutt, and still use it occasionally for bulk IMAP functions.) Some things I didn’t know, or didn’t remember. It’s possible I used MH back on that old VAX. It certainly wasn’t mutt or pine we used.
It’s an article well worth a read just to learn about the people who created SMTP. We’re also lucky that some of the folks named in the articles are still around and are still contributing to the life and growth of email. Their knowledge and institutional memory helps us map out the future.

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  • It’s OK, although the early history is rather scrambled. There was mail on multi-user systems way back, probably first on CTSS in 1965. All the Arpanet people knew about it, so the @ to automatically send messages from one machine to another was an obvious but important little step.

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