A Brief History of Spam – In the Beginning

pdp-10_tIn 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!

Arpanet_logical_map,_march_1977

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!

Written by Casper Manes

I currently work as a Senior Messaging Consultant for one of the premier consulting firms in the world, I cut my teeth on Exchange 5.0, and have worked with every version of Microsoft’s awesome email package since then, as well as MHS, Sendmail, and MailEnable systems. I've written dozens of articles on behalf of my past employers, their partners, and others, and I finally decided to embrace blogging and social media, so please follow me on Twitter @caspermanes if you enjoy my posts.

0 Comments

  1. Laura · February 23, 2013

    No, I would by no means consider this message a spam. I would regard it as pure information that would make my job easier. I won’t be surprised, if the reactions to this message were, ‘Thanks, buddy, for letting us know before everybody else!’
    By today’s standards this message is a spam but this is because we are getting tons of them. However, it’s hardly surprising that marketing folks were the first spammers – this needs to be noted.

  2. Sherman · February 25, 2013

    I think that spam is actually very subjective. If the mail isn’t something that you want, then it’s considered spam. But if you truly appreciate the content, then it becomes a very valuable e-mail. Perhaps one of the reasons why we’re extremely concerned about spam is because we think that it’s a source of threat. For instance, if we respond to the e-mail, especially if we share certain personal information, then we could be in danger of identity theft. I am not saying this isn’t true, because it’s very much real. I’m just saying that we have different perceptions of spam.

  3. Kim Pilapil · February 25, 2013

    Wow, what’s with the interest about the history of spam? Does it really matter that much anymore? Seriously, do people care about this, because the truth is I don’t. The only thing that concerns me is how to we can get rid of spam completely. From the looks of it, this war is going to go on for years, and our children and even our children’s children will inherit the same problem. It doesn’t matter what type of platform or device is being used. These spammers will eventually found a way to use them to their advantage.

  4. Danny · February 26, 2013

    I was also thinking the same way, Kim, but I think it’s also important to know even a bit of history about spam because it’s more than sending unsolicited messages into our mail. It is also related to human psychology, like why do we spam in the first place? Or what was the motivation of the earliest people who did it? It’s only when we study its beginnings we’ll be able to answer such questions. Besides, I find these stories quite entertaining and very informative.

  5. Martin Shore · February 27, 2013

    I don’t think that the spam methods implemented today will be the same in the future, Kim. In fact, as we are speaking now, they are evolving. This is necessary since platforms are also changing. They have to learn how to adapt. But you’re right. If nothing is ever going to stop the problem today, then our children and their future generation will face spam, even a more sinister kind of spamming. We just need to be vigilant and educate as many Internet users as possible about the many dangers happening in our inbox.

  6. Jorge · February 28, 2013

    Maybe if I were one of those researchers, I would definitely be baffled. After receiving dozens of heavy materials daily, you then come across with something so commercial sounding. It’s definitely something new. I’ve read a comment here somewhere that it’s not spam until you consider the mail unsolicited or it’s something you don’t really want in the first place. So even if it’s spam for me, it may not be for some of those researches. Perhaps the much bigger concern is the security of the system. If someone can send a message like this to the entire network nonchalantly, then something is wrong.

  7. Casper Manes · March 11, 2013

    Hi Kim,
    Actually, this whole series came about as a result of readers’ requests, so yes, some people do care. I’m sorry you don’t, but glad you left a comment about it. If there’s a topic you would like to see covered, please let us know!
    Cas

  8. Keesha · May 2, 2013

    Knowing the history of spam or spamming is important because it’ll help you understand how it got started. Understanding something is important if you want to find ways to resolve a problem it creates, or if you want to address it properly. If you’ve no clue how it started and what started it, you won’t be able to find a means to stop it. Now that we’ve a basic idea of who started spam and what his intentions were, we can think of ways to become more vigilant and observant. We’ll know what to avoid and what to keep doing.

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