Spam Turns 35, Still Shouldn’t be Left Home Alone

Get out the party favors, the cake and the noisemakers: spam turned 35 years old this week, even though it doesn’t look a day over 20. Yes, you heard that right, and stop using your fingers to count. Windows, Mac and Linux all have perfectly good calculator apps. For some of you, it may be difficult to reconcile spam’s age with the 20-something years that the World Wide Web’s been around. To others, it makes perfect sense that email spam and the Interwebs are forever and inextricably joined at the hip. If you find yourself on one side and seem to be arguing vehemently with the other side, fear not. You can both be right. Sort of.

It’s become part of the lore, the mythology, if you will, of the Internet, up there with Grace Hopper’s discovery of a dead moth inside the Harvard Mark II in 1947. Of course, the term ‘bug’ as a way of describing a glitch had been around for at least a hundred years before that, and Admiral Hopper never claimed to have found the moth herself. But that’s the beauty of lore. It doesn’t have to be truthful or accurate, and often sounds better when the facts become distorted. Much like politicians.

The origins of that nasty blight on society called email spam began on May 3, 1978, when the Interwebs was still an unuttered spark in the mind of George W. Bush. Back then, of course, it was known as Arpanet, and only the geekiest members of humankind – university professors, mostly – were permitted to play with it. in fact, it would have been far more appropriate to just get it over with and call it ‘Comicnet’, ‘Spockweb’, or ‘LucasNet’, but the US military had invented it, and they clearly have no sense of humor whatsoever.

Of course, partners to the research efforts promoted by Arpanet – mostly finding better and more efficient ways to kill people – were also allowed access to Arpanet, so it was a massively functional network of a few hundred users back in 1978. Put it into perspective this way: around 1980, there were approximately 20 operational networks on the Internet (Arpanet), while in 1995, the Internet had over 50,000. So, it just wouldn’t be right if the first spammer was a geek. Let’s face it: geeks are cute and mostly harmless, very reminiscent of Furbies.

Spoiler alert: you won’t be disappointed

How appropriate is it that the very first spammer was – wait for it – a MARKETING MANAGER? That’s right. On May 3, 1978, Gary Thuerk, a Marketing Manager for Digital Equipment Corporation, broadcast an email promoting a new DEC computer.

As the lore goes, Thuerk chose not to send out separate emails – a massive task for such a huge network as LucasNet – so instead he enlisted the help of assistant Carl Gartley, who wrote a single mass email. Now you may ask yourself: if it was a single mass email, why did he need an assistant? This is a troublesome head scratcher, indeed, but remember: Thuerk was a marketing manager, after all.

‘Mass’ Marketing?

Thuerk and Gartley broadcast the email to – wait for it – 393 people! Yes, in what would be considered a misfire in today’s world of nearly 2.5 billion Internet users, the very first spam message was a mere pimple upon a pimple residing on a freckle.

Laughably, perhaps, certainly in today’s scales, the reaction to the ‘mass’ broadcast was intense and fiercely negative. One can almost hear the clamorous voices of the researchers at MIT: ‘How dare you interrupt our Classic Trek marathon?’ or at Oxford: ‘Indeed? This chap’s gotten a little cheeky for my liking. He’s out of the Dungeons and Dragons tourney!’ or the Sorbonne: ‘Damn! I lost my count on these punch cards!’

Interestingly enough – and maybe this was a prophecy that foretold the persistence of spam even today – the first spam email did generate sales for DEC.

Of course, it’s way appropriate that the anniversary of spam comes the same week Hotmail finally gets its long awaited send-off into the ether of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ (MySpace, I’m looking at you). After all, when we think of spam – I mean, those of us who weren’t research assistants fiddling with switches at Midwestern University – it’s probably laced with bittersweet memories of the pre-Microsoft Hotmail and those very first letters from African princes, offering us untold riches if only we’d respond…

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