[mailhist-discuss] Segments of email history

Craig Partridge craig at aland.bbn.com
Sat Mar 31 09:38:48 PDT 2012

Hi Dave:

While I agree some partitioning is right, my instinct is to start by
simply listing some of the important steps, both to help shake out what
"significant" means and whether we have the right thematic partitions.

First a quick swing at significant.  My starting point is that a significant
contribution was (a) non-obvious *at the time* and (b) had a substantial
and lasting effect.

In that light, here's a starting list (not even trying to be comprehensive --
just trying to give some examples):

    * Ray Tomlinson's creation of networked email.  One might think this
      was obvious (given single machine email systems existed) but
      contemporary technical discussions show it was not obvious.  Indeed,
      Ray was responding to ideas that involved sending documents to
      remote printers and being placed in remote interoffice mail systems.
      Lasting effect is clear (e.g. @ is still the symbol separating 
      mailbox identifier from mailsystem identifier)

    * Vittal's "answer" [now "reply"] feature in MSG.  By all accounts, made
      email far more interactive and caused an explosive growth in email use.

    * RFC 733.  While RFC 733 was not the first standard for formatting
      email, it came after 4 years of unsuccessful efforts to create such
      a standard.  Furthermore, it grew to be the standard beyond the Internet,
      becoming the standard for USENET, BITNET and CSNET.

    * Seamless email relaying (1987).  Actually, three separate actions
      collectively achieved this result: the creation of a richly hierarchical
      naming scheme (DNS), implicit email forwarding (MX RRs), and
      the agreement of CSNET, BITNET and USENET to use DNS naming.
      None of these three was obvious (when DNS was created, most folks
      thought two levels of domains sufficient; MX RRs replaced a previous
      [failed] attempt and it was not clear that we needed to hide relaying,
      given the %-hack worked; and CSNET, BITNET and USENET viewed themselves
      as competing, yet concluded this change was in everyone's interest).
      Meant that when NSFNET arrived soon afterwards, all the US academic
      networks easily transitioned into the Internet.  Also, through
      USENET and EARN (if I remember the European acronym right), got 
      Europe tightly linked into the global email system (leading to the
      creation of RIPE).

    * Mark Horton's creation of uuencode/uudecode.  The tool that launched
      attachments.  Nowhere near as good as what we have today, but it was
      good enough for over a dozen years and gave the MIME folks a reference
      (good and bad) against which to judge their work.

    * Postel's creation of SMTP.  With modest extensions, what we use today
      (some 30 years later!) and not obvious at the time -- recall it
      replaced FTP and the attempt to replace FTP (MTP).

    * RFC 822.  Replaced 733 and, like its sibling SMTP, still (with
      extensions) today's standard decades later.



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