Un-Happy 35th Birthday to Spam Emails


Today, May 3rd, 2013 marks the 35th anniversary of the first-ever piece of spam being sent out to unwilling, hapless viewers. It was May 3rd, 1978 when Gary Thuerk, one of only 2600 people in the world on the ARPAnet, sent out an advertisement for open houses he was promoting, where people would be able to buy computer equipment (obviously, so they could get on the ARPAnet to read his unwelcome emails). This message reached 400 people – over 15% of the total number of people connected at the time.

Many of the people who received the first piece of spam were upset about the email, but a few turned out to the open houses because of the message. Since this marketing ploy worked, others soon started following suit. Thus, spam was born, and with it the headaches of cluttered mailboxes, important messages stuck in spam filters, and the legend of the rich, dead Nigerian prince, whose last wish was to give you $40 million dollars, but who doesn’t seem to know your name or gender.

As if giving birth to the entire spam industry were not bad enough, the first such unwanted email commercial was typed in ALL CAPS. That’s right – what is considered shouting in modern netiquette was exactly how Thuerk presented the first ad on an electronic network – like a used car salesman in a cheap TV ad. The first spam message even seemed to predict keyword loading, as is apparent from this excerpt:

 

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…”

 

Thuerk was a marketer for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which went defunct in 1998 and whose remains were purchased by Compaq. A heavy-handed salesman, Gary was given the job of promoting open houses for the DECSYSTEM-20, the first to offer the ability to integrate with the ARPAnet. So, the marketer thought he had the perfect audience.

The ARPAnet is now considered by most historians to be a direct ancestor of today’s internet. The message had to be prepared by an engineer at DEC, Carl Gartley, who sent it from Thuerk’s account.

They spent days hand-typing all the email addresses they could find into the to: file, without realizing the field was limited to 320 addresses, after which the addresses overflowed into the body of the message. They later resent the message to those on their list they missed the first time around. There was an address book function available, but they were unaware of its existence.

This was not the first time unwanted messages were sent on the ARPAnet, as people had sent out baby pictures and personal info to people they did not know before then, preceding Facebook by decades. But this message, send out 35 years ago, was the first such unwanted commercial email.

Un-happy 35th birthday, Spam!