The First Email Message

Looking at a problem led to a solution no one knew was needed

The histories of ideas and concepts are at least as complicated as they are interesting, and it's usually difficult to point to a historical first. However, we are able to identify the first email, and we know quite a bit about how it happened and when it was sent.

In Search of a Use for ARPANET

In 1971, the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) had just begun to emerge as the first large network of computers. It was sponsored and created by the U.S. Department of Defense and would later lead to the development of the internet. However, in 1971, the ARPANET was little more than connected computers, and those who knew about it searched for possible uses of this invention.

Richard W. Watson thought of a way to deliver messages and files to printers at remote sites. He filed his "Mail Box Protocol" as a draft standard under RFC 196, but the protocol was never implemented. In hindsight and given today's problems with junk email and junk faxes before that, that's probably not all bad.

Another person interested in sending messages between computers was Ray Tomlinson. SNDMSG, a program that could deliver messages to another person on the same computer had been around for about 10 years. It delivered these messages by appending to a file owned by the user you wanted to reach. To read the message, they simply read the file.


Incidentally, Tomlinson was working in a group at BBN Technologies that developed an experimental file transfer program called CPYNET, which could write and read files on a remote computer.

Tomlinson made CPYNET append to files instead of replacing them. He then merged its functionality with that of SENDMSG so that it could send messages to remote machines. The first email program was born.

Half pixilated envelope representing email.
 Sam Hofman / Getty Images

The Very First Network Email Message

After a few test messages containing the timeless words "QUERTYIOP" and maybe "ASDFGHJK," Ray Tomlinson was satisfied enough with his invention to show it off to the rest of the group.

While delivering a presentation on how form and content are inseparable, Tomlinson sent the first real email in late 1971. The email announced its own existence, although the exact words have been forgotten. However, it is known that it included instructions on how to use the @ character in email addresses.

Was this page helpful?