[mailhist-discuss] Segments of email history

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Sat Mar 31 10:54:14 PDT 2012

Good point Craig,

Here's my own quick and dirty list of milestone accomplishments/capabilities
that need to be pinned down and dated. I'm not as knowledgeable on the
specifics of Arpanet email as many of you. So I won't try to put names by

Underlying this list is a sense that we need push beyond Internet/ARPANET
email, which is relatively well documented (thanks to RFCs and the efforts
already made by Craig and others to publish this history), to look at the
use of email and other kinds of email system. We know much less about
internal corporate email systems, the email capabilities of office
automation systems, and commercial timesharing email services. 

"Firsts" would seem to apply to (in approximate order)

*	Pre-email electronic message transmission, including the suggestion
that SAGE operators could hack personal messages into data streams, etc. 
*	Email on timesharing systems, single computer.
*	Header fields
*	First email reader
*	Network email.
*	Commercial offering of email by timesharing service
*	Integration of email reader, message sender, and composition
functions. (Not sure if "Reply" was part of this).
*	Integrated address book
*	Confirmed delivery over network
*	Unread message recall capability
*	Client/server email, with messages downloaded for local processing,
filing, response on a different computer from the mailbox store.
*	GUI for client
*	Email systems offered to smaller businesses by office automation
vendors (DEC, Wang, IBM, etc -- not clear what they had when in late 1970s)
*	Notes-style advanced database server integrating email with other
collaboration tools
*	Email service targeted at consumers
*	Email for personal computer LANs
*	Major global company rolls out email as main mode of internal
communication (IBM? DEC?)
*	Rich text
*	Integrated encryption
*	Asian character sets
*	Attachments
*	Inline images
*	Gateways between commercial email services

It's possible that there are some areas in which Internet email does not
claim the "first." For example, it's conceivable (and I have no knowledge of
this) that IBM's internal system might have offered the same simple global
addressing feature as Craig's "Seamless email relaying" prior to 1987.
Likewise I wouldn't be surprised to learn that proprietary systems provided
capabilities similar to MIME years before this was standardized for Internet
email. There are also some important capabilities that Internet email still
doesn't do very well, which why the market for Exchange and Notes still

Also, of course, "firsts" are not the only things that matter in history --
so things like SMTP are still important technologies even if it turns out to
be hard to attach a "first" to them.


-----Original Message-----
From: mailhist-discuss-bounces at emailhistory.org
[mailto:mailhist-discuss-bounces at emailhistory.org] On Behalf Of Craig
Sent: Saturday, March 31, 2012 11:39 AM
To: dcrocker at bbiw.net; Dave Crocker
Cc: mailhist-discuss at emailhistory.org
Subject: Re: [mailhist-discuss] Segments of email history

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

    * 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
      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
      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
      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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