Sending and receiving emails is second nature to most of us these days: for better or worse, our professional and personal lives are constantly underscored with the quiet – or not so quiet – ping of electronic messages. Despite the rise of other electronic communication mediums such as instant messaging and video calls, email remains a firm standby for all purposes, as formal or casual as necessary, both communication channel and archive. We take it for granted now, but where did it all begin?

The first email was sent in 1971. US programmer Raymond Samuel Tomlinson designed the system for use on ARPANET, the progenitor of the Internet we know today, and he reports that the first email humanity ever sent or received was gibberish. Those of us made cynical by the constant stream of emails to our inboxes might not find this surprising. Tomlinson was the first to send a message across a network to another machine, using the now ubiquitous @ symbol to signify that the recipient was in another location; prior to his email, messages could only be sent to other users on the same machine, the electronic equivalent of leaving a post-it note on the desk.

‘The test messages were entirely forgettable. Most likely the first message was QWERTYUIOP or something similar.’ ~ Raymond Samuel Tomlinson

 

When Tomlinson showed the email system to his colleague, he was admonished for not working on their assigned project, and told not to tell anyone. The potential of the system he had created was not realised until much later. Since then, email has expanded into all areas of the web, from business to retail, becoming a mainstay of our online lives. As a result, it has become a not insignificant target for cybercrime, with most of us sadly fully acquainted with the hassles of spam and phishing emails. Security, however, has been integrated from the start, with email encryption being applied as early as 1973.

Despite the increasingly complex nature of the technology we use, email has nonetheless remained central to both our online and our mobile behaviour, a very potent example of how simplicity and utility produce longevity in technical environments. As of the start of this year, 182.9 billion emails are sent and received every day across the world – that’s over twenty-six times the global population. Recent reports predict that by 2017 there will be 4.9 billion email accounts, an increase from 3.9 billion recorded in 2013, and proof enough that our inboxes will keep demanding our attention for a long time yet.