[mailhist-discuss] First email attachment?

Jack Haverty jack at 3kitty.org
Sun Mar 12 15:42:10 PDT 2017


I'm not sure if it fits your definition of "attachment", but the COMSYS
mail system at MIT in 1976 (and probably a bit earlier) had a notion of
"Enclosures" which enabled large or non-textual content to be included
in a message outside of the body of the text itself.  The message would
include a pointer to a file containing the content to be enclosed, which
the receiving system could retrieve by the local file system, or
mechanism such as FTP, if and when the recipient wanted it.

So the main text message would be delivered by COMSYS, and the enclosure
would be retrieved later by the recipient.

Since there wasn't any protocol defined yet for attachments, messages
sent to recipients outside of the COMSYS world got the enclosure as part
of the message body.

That behavior allowed us to conveniently send large documents in
internal email.  It also led to a few complaints.  One episode was
captured in the HEADER-PEOPLE archives, when I had just sent something
large (a ~65,000 character document, Oh My!) that caused other people's
mail systems to choke.  See below.

For mail history buffs, the world has changed since 1976.  Yesterday I
got the following error message:

>>> MAIL From:<jack at 3kitty.org> SIZE=34110228
<<< 552 Message size 34110228 exceeds limits 29360128
554 5.0.0 Service unavailable

So, we have two datapoints.  ~65000 was a limit in 1976, and 29360128 in
2017.  The net has advanced from kilobits to gigabits.  Mail from
kilobytes to megabytes.  Progress!?

Here's the 1976 message:

DATE: 8 NOV 1976 0828-EDT



SUBJECT: Huge Messages



Sorry about that.  I have seen messages at least as large flying

around the net before, so I didn't think anyone would have a problem.

You may have noticed that the message had a line close to the front

labeled 'Enclosure ...'.  This is a feature of our internal mail

system which has proven useful in avoiding problems of huge messages.

The actual message is the few lines before the 'Enclosure'.  The

text, as passed around in the 'message' contains a pointer to

a file -- i.e. the enclosure.  The various mail printing programs

know about the syntax of a file-pointer, and generally append it

to the text when encountered during a printing operation.  Individual

receivers can also have their own 'printing format', which instead

of printing the whole disgusting mess in your mail file just prints

a note containing the file name -- this is what the 'enclosure ...' line

is for.  For net mail there is no such convention, so unfortunately

the whole thing goes over, headed by the single line note of where

it came from.



On 03/11/2017 12:01 PM, Dave Crocker wrote:
> Folks,
> G'day.
> MIME standardized attachments for Internet Mail, but my recollection is
> that the construct of an attachment(*) existed before MIME.  I believe
> various 'department' or 'enterprise' proprietary systems had them, in
> the 1980s.
> Anyone care to offer citations for first support of the construct?
> d/
> ps. From the start of Arpanet mail -- at least with Tenex sndmsg -- it
> was possible to incorporate the contents of a file into the body of the
> message, but the result was an indifferentiated body.  So it doesn't
> count as an 'attachment' construct.  Closer to the point is the early
> convention of uuencoding content -- essentially a manual step into and
> out of the body -- since that was distinguished; but I'm not sure it
> should be classed as 'attachment' in the sense we normally mean.

More information about the mailhist-discuss mailing list