Email Spam Is Born

Though unremarkable today, the sending of an unsolicited bulk of commercial e-mail by a marketing representative to every ARPAnet address on the west coast marked the unwelcome birth of the reviled modern annoyance known as email spam, on this day in 1978.

Naturally, someone was trying to sell something. Gary Thuerk, a marketing manager for the American computer company Digital Equipment Corporation, needed to spread the word about his company’s upcoming open houses in Los Angeles and San Mateo, California. Digital Equipment Corporation would be showcasing its latest computers and Thuerk was eager to kindle interest in the new technology. There were some 600 people on the invite list, most of whom were computer scientists, and Thuerk decided to email them simultaneously. He had his assistant, Carl Gartley, write a single mass e-mail, then used the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPAnet, an operational packet switching network that was the first Internet, to send his message. Like many spam emails sent today, that first spam message was long, tedious, and all-caps. A portion of the message read:

DIGITAL WILL BE GIVING A PRODUCT PRESENTATION OF THE NEWEST MEMBERS OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY; THE DECSYSTEM-2020, 2020T, 2060, AND 2060T…WE INVITE YOU TO COME SEE THE 2020 AND HEAR ABOUT THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY AT THE TWO PRODUCT PRESENTATIONS WE WILL BE GIVING IN CALIFORNIA THIS MONTH.

Thuerk did snag some interested computer scientists for his company’s events. But the message annoyed many more recipients than it attracted–including a swift crackdown by very annoyed governing authorities. Since it was on ARPAnet, the world’s first spam also inspired heated debate on the then-miniscule Internet community. Said computer programmer Richard Stallman, “Nobody should be allowed to send a message with a header that long, no matter what it is about.”

The rest, as they say, is history.