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History of Email

Why History?

Why would we even bother looking at the history of email? Why not just get to the nuts and bolts right now? Good question.
The answer is simple -- we look at the history because we want to. There really is no reason to look at the history in order to use email. If history doesn't interest you, you can easily skip this lesson.
However, it is often enlightening to see how something we rely on came into existence and have some idea of the factors that shaped it as it grew into what we use today. If you enjoy this kind of stuff then read on!

In the Beginning

Email had its humble beginnings in the 1960's. It wasn't called email until much later, but it began as users of mainframe computers would leave messages by placing a file in another user's directory (aka folder) somewhere. This has been compared to leaving a note on someone's desk.
This eventually led to the creation of software tools and standard locations for the messages (like an inbox on your desk).
Early email programs were developed that would send and display messages (they were originally separate programs). Features were constantly added as people found new ways to use the tools.

Usenet

However, this form of electronic communication was limited to those who were connected to the same computer system. The next evolutionary step was to allow messages to be sent to users on different computers that communicated via dialup modems or early networks. In the 1970's, this began and email addresses as we see them today came into existence.
The @ symbol was used to separate the userid from the name of the computer for the first time in 1972 by Ray Tomlinson.
In the UNIX world, the ! symbol was also used to create a path of machine names to send a message through multiple computers. This was based on the UUCP mechanism which allowed computers to send messages without having a direct connection (this was known as the UUCPNET).

LANS

With the decentralization of computing power during the 70's and 80's, the internetworking of smaller computers began to replace or expand the large mainframes. Users had their own computer that communicated with others on a Local Area Network. Email servers were developed that stored all the email in a central computer and users could send and retrieve messages using client software on their personal machine.
At first, the mail servers and clients could not interact with others as there were no protocols. This lead to the formation of several protocols to allow communication amongst different servers and between servers and clients. Some of the protocols we'll discuss in future lessons include SMTP, POP3, IMAP and MIME.

The Internet

With the advent of the internet, the protocols and procedures for sending email were well established. In addition, the concept of domains replaced machine names and domain name servers made the need for a path of machines obsolete. The domain name servers would figure out what path to use to get the message to the right place.
The need to send non-text files (such as images or documents) through email led to the development of further protocols to support the easy transport of these types of files as attachments (this is what MIME is all about).

HTML Mail

Today we have many providers offering HTML base email. In these cases, the client software is actually located somewhere on the internet rather than on your PC. You can access the email from any computer that has a web browser. The client software turns your email into web pages for you to read. This has many advantages as well as some disadvantages. We'll see more about the difference between using an email client and html email in future lessons.


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