The History of Email
Emails are a central part of modern life, and are very likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. More than 200 billion emails are sent every day around the world. But even in the pre-email world, there were ways to transmit text more quickly than the time it would take you to hand-deliver a note.
Many of these techniques are forgotten today, and if they’re remembered at all it’s more as a curiosity. We’ve researched a few different communications technologies that paved the way for email – and for email marketing. We hope you enjoy the history of email, from telegrams to automation!
The 1850s: The Telegram
Telegraphs seem really old fashioned these days, but at the time they were cutting-edge technology and, in hindsight, are clearly one of the most important forerunners of email. Messages were transferred over wires – at first it was completely in Morse code, where each letter had to be typed and sounded out individually.
That sounds like a lot of work today, but at the time it was really a communications revolution. Messages could be transferred hundreds, even thousands of miles in just a few minutes. This is in comparison to letters that could take days, weeks, even months to get where they needed to go.
By the 1890s, it was possible to communicate between continents thanks to the first transatlantic cables. A little bit later, thanks to radio communication, the entire world could be connected and networked. It was possible to send telegrams from anywhere – as long as you had access to both a radio connection and a telegraph system.
The 1870s: Pneumatic Tubes
Pneumatic tubes are systems that propel small containers (containers that can carry, for example, letters) through networks of tubes by using compressed air or a partial vacuum.
Pneumatic tubes were mostly used to transport parcels, letters, or other small packages within cities. In London, the first pneumatic tube was installed between the London Stock Exchange and the offices of the Electric Telegraph Company in 1853. It reached perhaps its fullest expression in Paris, which installed nearly 500 kilometers of tubing throughout the city.
Pneumatic tubes are still used in smaller applications today, for example in drive-through banks in the United States or as a means to transport smaller parcels confidentially and quickly. But they remain an important part of the history of email, and our communication technology might look quite different had they not existed!
The 1930s: The Telex Network
The development of Telex machines brought the world one step closer to email. The network was built in parallel, as a supplement to, the telephone network, to enable the quick communication of textual messages. Every connection had its own telex number. Messages were entered into telex machines, and then printed out on a corresponding telex machine somewhere else. The biggest advantage relative to fax machines is that you could type your message directly into the machine, rather than having to copy or scan it.
Only a few people remember the Telex network these days, as the advantages of email (and even fax) have since become overwhelming. But even as recently as the 1970s, there were as many as 120,000 connections in Germany. Interestingly, the telex network is still fully operational, but is mostly confined these days to use within the maritime industry as a distress signal tool.
The 1960s: The ARPANET
There are lots of opinions about exactly when, where, and by whom email was officially discovered. But you can take this for sure: email originated from the ARPANET. This network, which is a direct “ancestor” of the world wide web, was developed and served by a small research group at MIT, and served at the beginning as a communications tool between universities.
The first email address with the @ symbol was thought up by a man named Ray Romlinson. He probably sent the first “real” email in 1971 using this computer network. Unfortunately, no records are left that preserved this first email.
The 1990s: Web Mailers
The 90s is where the history of email ends, and the development of today’s version of email begins. In the 90s, email became a tool of the masses. Everyone could register for a free email address, and that’s exactly what people started to do: by the millions. The first email providers – Hotmail, Yahoo, EarthLink, Rocketmail, AOL – quickly won a wide audience. Many of these providers still exist today.
It was around this time that email also began to be used by marketers. Prior to email, direct marketing consisted almost entirely of mailing letters, flyers, and brochures, or telemarketing. For many companies, email newsletters were something of a revelation: low costs along with high levels of customization and personalization.
The 2000s: The Spam Wave
The story of email isn’t entirely filled with happiness, flowers, and bunny rabbits. Because there was – and remains – a dark side to email. The dark side that we all experience. Spam.
Scammers also saw advantages in email’s potential. They began sending un-serious messages about medicines, cameras, please for help…you name it, and a spammer has tried to sell it to an unwitting victim.
As a result, email providers started providing spam filters to try to weed out the unsavory emails from the legitimate communication. Spam filters, in the meantime, have gotten significantly stronger, smarter, and more effective. But this also opens the questions for marketers: how to ensure that legitimate messages get through the filters?
Email is here to stay. The biggest challenger in email marketing is how to stand out from the crowd of unhelpful and, in the worst case, illegitimate competition. The answer is clear: relevance. Email marketers need to send timely, relevant email newsletters to their subscribers that add value.
Newsletters need to contain interesting or useful information, exciting product offers, or some other kind of relevant content. Without good content, your emails won’t stand out from the crowd and will end up in the junk bin.