In the beginning, there was the ARPANET, and all was well with the world. The ARPANET was the term given to the collection of networks that would eventually give rise to the Internet we all know and love today. Electronic communications were between peers, and everyone knew everyone. That was relatively easy considering that there were only a few hundred researchers and scientists working on the early precursor to the Internet. While work on packet switching, resilient communications networks began back in 1969, the ARPNET really started to get going by the late seventies.
If you look at this diagram of the ARPNET from 1977, you can see just how small it was compared to today’s global Internet. All the major nodes could be drawn on a single sheet of paper!
Electronic mail messages, or e-mail, were transferred between hosts using a variety of different methods, as SMTP was not even proposed in the RFCs until 1982. The @ symbol that we all consider eponymous with email, while originally proposed back in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson of BBN Technologies, was not even the universal way to address a user at a host! It was in this very primitive version of the Internet that spam was born.
The ARPANET, by common usage, prohibited the sending of commercial messages since it was a platform for research; one that was largely funded by the US and other governments. Of course, there are plenty of commercial enterprises that would also be of common interest to the users of the ARPANET, and I’m sure the senders of the very first spam felt that they were not doing anything wrong at the time. It was a much greyer area back in the late 70’s than spam is today.
The first spam message is generally attributed to a salesman from DEC who wanted to let the 600 or so users of the ARPANET know about the new DEC-20 and TOPS-20 operating system, which included built-in support for the ARPANET protocol. Gary Thuerk, the marketing guy at DEC, and Carl Gartley, and engineer with DEC, worked for a few days on a number of iterations before coming up with the message that they sent.
Below, minus the headers listing the several hundred recipients, is the first message ever considered to be spam.
DIGITAL WILL BE GIVING A PRODUCT PRESENTATION OF THE NEWEST MEMBERS OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY; THE DECSYSTEM-2020, 2020T, 2060, AND 2060T. THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY OF COMPUTERS HAS EVOLVED FROM THE TENEX OPERATING SYSTEM AND THE DECSYSTEM-10 <PDP-10> COMPUTER ARCHITECTURE. BOTH THE DECSYSTEM-2060T AND 2020T OFFER FULL ARPANET SUPPORT UNDER THE TOPS-20 OPERATING SYSTEM.
THE DECSYSTEM-2060 IS AN UPWARD EXTENSION OF THE CURRENT DECSYSTEM 2040 AND 2050 FAMILY. THE DECSYSTEM-2020 IS A NEW LOW END MEMBER OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY AND FULLY SOFTWARE COMPATIBLE WITH ALL OF THE OTHER DECSYSTEM-20 MODELS.
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. THE LOCATIONS WILL BE:
TUESDAY, MAY 9, 1978 – 2 PM
HYATT HOUSE (NEAR THE L.A. AIRPORT)
LOS ANGELES, CA
THURSDAY, MAY 11, 1978 – 2 PM
DUNFEY’S ROYAL COACH
SAN MATEO, CA
(4 MILES SOUTH OF S.F. AIRPORT AT BAYSHORE, RT 101 AND RT 92)
A 2020 WILL BE THERE FOR YOU TO VIEW. ALSO TERMINALS ON-LINE TO OTHER DECSYSTEM-20 SYSTEMS THROUGH THE ARPANET. IF YOU ARE UNABLE TO ATTEND, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CONTACT THE NEAREST DEC OFFICE FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE EXCITING DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY.
What do you think? If you were an engineer or researcher working on the ARPANET and received this message, would you have considered it spam? Remember, this was at a time when personal ownership of computers was considered science fiction, and there were no magazines or television shows or even brick and mortar stores selling computers. And this DEC-20 was right in line with the research being done on the ARPANET, so definitely relevant to your interests. Personally, I would have been delighted to receive an invite and would have been eager to attend. My how the times have changed, or have they?
In our next post, we’ll take a look at the reactions to this new type of electronic message. I think you will be surprised at how some reacted, and will see a number of parallels to today!