Email’s humble beginnings and the birth of tracking pixels

By Len Shneyder

It should come as no surprise to everyone reading this that email is the oldest, most venerable and original marketing channel. Ray Tomlinson sent the first email in 1972 as a test message to himself. The email traveled from one computer to another sitting right beside it at a lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today, email is knocking on the door of 50 while spam, as we know it, or as it’s come to be known, is ominously celebrating its 40th birthday.

The beautiful thing about the internet is that it doesn’t forget. A simple Google search will give you the name of Gary Thuerk as the progenitor of spam. In truth, Gary Thuerk worked in marketing and sales for the now defunct Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). In 1978, Gary wanted to announce a new product — printing out invitations and information about the product was slow, costly and laborious, so he had the brilliant idea that he could notify everyone on ARPANET (the predecessor of the internet when it was still a Defense Department project) about the availability of the DEC 20.

When Thuerk sent this email, it caused an instant uproar — the first case of legitimately breaking the internet! Storage was minuscule back then and the massive email with a distribution list of 400 some odd recipients filled the hard disks of some of its recipients. Thuerk was admonished for this stunt (yes, this was considered a stunt back then as no one had done something like this) and told that if he did it again he would be barred from ARPANET — after all, it wasn’t a public resource back then; it was the mainstay of the military and researchers.

The chicken or the egg?

Email started as a means of collaboration with the ability to easily bridge, at the speed of electrons, vast distances. Researchers working on complex problems could quickly discuss them through email distribution lists and reach consensus. The invention of email almost begs the question: was the internet built to create email or was email invented to create the internet? The two are inextricably linked. According to A Brief History of the Internet by the Internet Society,

“Email has been a significant factor in all areas of the Internet, and that is certainly true in the development of protocol specifications, technical standards, and Internet engineering. The very early RFCs often presented a set of ideas developed by the researchers at one location to the rest of the community. After email came into use, the authorship pattern changed – RFCs were presented by joint authors with common view independent of their locations. The use of specialized email mailing lists has been long used in the development of protocol specifications, and continues to be an important tool.”

Suffice it to say, the progenitors of email never imagined the technology to be used in the manner and scale it’s being used today.

How did we get here?

The question of how email went from a novel idea to reach a …read more

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