When Was the First Spam Email Sent?

DECSYSTEM-2020 KS-10 (1979) at the Living Computer Museum
DECSYSTEM-2020 KS-10 (1979) at the Living Computer Museum. By Jason Scott (Flickr: IMG_9998) [ CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Spam surely is older than email: I got 74 examples of it today before receiving an email I liked.

That sounds a bit fishy, does it not? Let's find out when the first commercial email was really sent — and what it advertised.

The first piece of spam was sent on May 3, 1978.

It was sent to people taken from a (then printed) directory of ARPANET users (mostly at universities and corporations). ARPANET was the first major wide-area computer network.

What Did the First Spam Email Advertise

When DEC released a new computer and operating system with ARPANET support — DECSYSTEM-2020 and TOPS-20 — a DEC marketer felt the news relevant to ARPANET users and administrators.

He looked up addresses, briefed his boss about potential complaints from the mass email, and delivered it to about 600 recipients. Though some found the message vaguely relevant in public, it was in general not received well — and the last commercial mass email for many years to come.