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Email’s 50 years as a tech world A-lister

Just like those famous Hollywood stars, email is instantly recognizable. All grown up from its humble beginnings as a simple messaging system, email is now the number one direct marketing tool for business. 

50 years of email

Throughout the years, the history of email is full of weird and wonderful moments, which show us email is here to stay.

When email was created in 1971, it was a huge leap forward. Prior to this, electronic communications were much more complex. From Morse Code to faxes and pagers, and even a rudimentary form of email (centered around file sharing on networks), the methods could be described as ‘clunky’ at best. But then in 1971, the landscape of electronic communications was simplified as the email address and system as we know it today emerged, originally just between networked computers.  

At the time, so few people had computers that the inventor of email, graduate coder Raymond Tomlinson, was told not to work on it by his superiors as they didn’t think it was important. Perhaps it’s this, along with his perseverance, that makes his idea seem so visionary, looking back.

The historical timeline of email

Today, in the field of communications, email is a superstar. Let’s take a walk-of-fame tour through email’s 50 years so far.

To start, we need to go way back to the 1970s, to a time when messages were sent on paper!  To set the scene, in the early 1970s, portable music players were just becoming a thing, and they’d use magnetic tape as the storage device.

It’s just so hard to picture a world without the Internet, without computers, without smartphones — there were no last-minute cancellations by cell, either. If you turned up late to meet a friend at a coffee shop, you had to show up on time, use a grimy payphone on a street corner, or risk annoying them.

It all began in the 1970s 

When Tomlinson started work on his electronic mail system, he had to build everything from scratch, including the address system.

The famous ‘@’ symbol ‘simply made sense’ to Tomlinson, who borrowed the idea from cash registers he’d seen in the shops ringing up ‘10 items @ $1.75’ (the @ sign, of course, standing for the word ‘at’). Before barcode scanning, the till operator would use the ‘@’ to multiply your items.

Thanks to Tomlinson, @ is still a stand-in for ‘at’ but now is used by everyone to locate the address ‘host’ computer, e.g., ‘Ray@computer1’. This symbol was first used in 1971 when the first email was sent.

computer terminal with @ for email

By 1972 Tomlinson’s superiors at ARPANET, part of the U.S. military, realized leaving e-messages worked fine on a single computer, but if you wanted to get ahold of someone else on another ARPANET host in another location, you had to use a telephone. And the 24/7 schedule enjoyed by computers faltered when messages arrived only by telephone call, requiring a human to respond.

Suddenly, the brightest minds in the world realized the electronic messages would wait to be read — so you didn’t have to keep calling or worrying about time zones. Instead, you could leave a message for any teammate 24/7.

Talk about early adoption!  In 1976, ARPANET joined a United Kingdom mail server to the United States, and Queen Elizabeth II sent her first mass communication message to all connected hosts. The monarch announced a new code language invented by the British while visiting the Ministry of Defence’s scientific research hub, the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. The language? CORAL, short for Computer On-line Real-time Applications Language.

Later in the decade, high school student Shiva Ayyadurai bizarrely claimed to have invented email. His registered copyright on a program he’d called EMAIL while working on a medical internship was a fact hotly disputed by ARPANET.

Email races into the 1980s

Onwards and upwards! In the 1980s, the race was on to build applications that use email, and the first email providers appeared. Many tech companies released first-version mail-share software. Xerox led in PCs, and the notable Xerox Alto V9 with WYSIWYG-based virtual office was the first desktop to include email. When viewed by Steve Jobs and a group of Apple Engineers, Xerox concepts led to the first Apple Lisa and Macintosh systems’ design.

Later in this decade, the Yuppie generation (a Young urban professional person in employment) took to the mobile phone’s invention and the ease of on-the-go communication. The thrill of leaving voicemail messages (which used email file transfer concepts from ARPANET) caught people’s imagination, setting off a dot.com boom, all thanks to Wang Laboratories.

Space shuttle sends paper airplane to earth

Email goes interstellar in the 1990s 

On August 28, 1991, NASA received the first email from space. As those watching this unfold on television oohed and aahed, the creation of Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) made email attachments possible — which looking back, was a significant event for Post Office services everywhere.

It wasn’t until 1993 Tomlinson says the term ‘email’ first became a ‘big thing’ because ‘somebody [a journalist] asked the question: Where did email come from?” This was the first time the term ‘email’ — an abbreviation of ‘electronic mail’ — was published in the mainstream news. There were only 1000 users at the time.

And then email took off!

In 1996 the first launched web-based email service — now incredibly familiar to us as Hotmail — put to rest a lot of the frustrations experienced with early version email software. The name came from arranging the HTML language letters to form HoTMaiL, soon after, known as Hotmail. 

Those who had home computers at this time adopted Hotmail fast. By the end of their first month, Hotmail had more than 20,000 subscribers. By January 1997, the one-millionth subscriber signed up. 

 A boom in business and home computing saw emerging entrepreneurs realize the potential of all-in-one Internet systems and the attraction of email communications — to us ordinary folk.

The 2000s and email is everywhere

The original thought behind email was to leave a message someone could pick up on their own schedule, while you could go do something else. It’s probably fair to say without that idea, we wouldn’t have social media, networks, direct marketing, e-vouchers, online shopping, or anything else that allows us to pick up where we left off, any time we like. 

The years between 2000 and 2010 saw many new software innovations — too many to list here. But it’s fair to say without Tomlinson and ARPANET working on email and File Transfer Protocols — inventing ways to move information around a web-based system — we might not have any of this. 

By 2010 email is a household name

By 2010, ’email’ had become a key search term on Google. In 2018, opinions sealed as people preferred to write “email” and not “e-mail.” Google Trends proved this as the best way for a company to write “email” in their comms. No hyphen. Case closed.

At Namecheap, in 2011, we launched Private Email (now called Professional Business Email). Our customers needed a trusted, secure business email address they could match to their business domain names. Email soon became a vital part of our business success story. When you consider the number of global email users is set to grow to 4.6 billion by 2025, we’re glad to be providing a professional email service for any business, solopreneur, or individual who champions a brand.

You can use our email hosting with any domain you have registered with us, or domains registered elsewhere. You can even try it for free for two months with an opt-in to buy if you are certain you’d like to.

pigeon zooms through the sky with email in envelopes

Email to infinity and beyond

What is the future for our email superstar? It’s hard to say, but here are a few incredible stats that show how far email has come:

  • Those of us signed up to email accounts grew to 4.26 million in 2022, with each user owning 1.75 accounts on average.
  • Email is the #1 direct marketing tool for business, and 307 billion messages go out daily (2021). This is expected to grow to 376 billion by 2025.
  • In 2021, 46% of emails are opened on a mobile device — a trend expected to increase, particularly in developing nations where mobile use is the most popular way to access Internet services.
  • Today, 31% of B2B marketers say email newsletters are the best way to nurture leads. (Content Marketing Institute, 2020).
  • Marketers who send segmented campaigns from a trusted email address note as much as a 760% increase in revenue. (Campaign Monitor, 2019).
a paper airplain with a % sign suggesting sale emails

Got a new email plan?

We’ve hand-picked a few fantastic resources to point you in the right direction with a brand new Professional Business Email hosted email account. 

Why not get the most out of email as a direct marketing tool and get inspired?

When did you get your first email? We’d love to hear about your first foray out into email-land, so let us know in the comments!

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Lisa McKnight avatar

Lisa McKnight

As a Senior digital copywriter at Namecheap, I'm passionate about communicating how vital the technology industry is and how stuff works. I enjoy writing persuasive and compelling copy for B2B and B2C clients, alongside interviews and thought pieces for authors and entrepreneurs. More articles written by Lisa.

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