Marking 100 Years of Email, From Sci-Fi to Reality!

Science Fiction World

Email has transformed human communication, transcending the constraints of space and time, allowing messages to traverse the globe at the speed of light. Today, it serves as the linchpin for messaging, voice & video meetings, online transactions, and remote work, fundamentally reshaping the way we connect and manage our lives. It’s no wonder that Email has become an integral part of our identity.

We use email on a daily basis, yet many of us may not know that email was first imagined in science fiction a century ago, long before technology turned it into a modern reality. As we celebrate the centennial anniversary of email’s conception in the realm of speculative storytelling, this article delves into the captivating narrative of its evolution, bridging the imaginative influences of Sci-Fi with the factual timeline of its development.

This exploration holds particular significance for both us and our users, given that ‘Space Email,’ our privacy-focused email service, also draws inspiration from the visionary tales of 20th-century science fiction. So, without further ado, let’s embark on a fascinating journey through the interplay of Sci-Fi’s creativity and the real-world evolution of email.

YEAR 1923

Artwork_from_Men_Like_Gods_by_HG_Wells
Cover of Men Like Gods by HG Wells

In H.G. Wells’ timeless science fiction classic, ‘Men Like Gods,’ penned exactly a century ago in 1923, the narrative unfolds as Mr. Barnstaple, the protagonist, embarks on an unexpected holiday that catapults him and two other cars into the futuristic realm of ‘Utopia.’

Utopia, positioned 3,000 years ahead of Earth in terms of progress and devoid of a world government, thrives under a unique form of anarchy. Governed by education, the society shuns divisive religions and politics, placing value on advanced science and adhering to ‘the Five Principles of Liberty’ namely: privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion—a framework allowing constructive criticism.

In this alternate reality, communication transcends traditional boundaries as people exclusively use wireless systems, bearing properties akin to voicemail and email. From the following passages from ‘Men Like Gods,’ written a century ago in 1923, one can discern glimpses of foresight into what we now recognize as electronic mail or Email—a testament to the enduring influence of science fiction on our technological landscape.

This Mr. Barnstaple learnt was the Utopian equivalent of letter and telephone. For in Utopia, except by previous arrangement, people do not talk together on the telephone. A message is sent to the station of the district in which the recipient is known to be, and there it waits until he chooses to tap his accumulated messages. And any that one wishes to repeat can be repeated.

Then he talks back to the senders and dispatches any other messages he wishes. The transmission is wireless. The little pillars supply electric power for transmission or for any other purpose the Utopians require.

Far away across the valley Crystal pointed out the district station at which this correspondence gathered and was dispersed. Only a few people were on duty there; almost all the connexions were automatic. The messages came and went from any part of the planet.

In Utopia the ear like the eye was at peace. The air which had once been a mud of felted noises was now – a purified silence. Such sounds as one heard lay upon it like beautiful printing on a generous sheet of fine paper.
H.G. Wells
Men Like Gods (1923)

Wells’ visionary imagination extends beyond the realm of communication. In his work ‘When the Sleeper Wakes (1899),’ he explores future forms of entertainment. The protagonist, awakening after two centuries of slumber, finds a London dramatically transformed by advanced technologies—audio books, airplanes, and televisions among them. However, beneath the veneer of progress, a shadow of systematic oppression and social injustice looms large in this dystopian world. The narrative echoes with a haunting familiarity, prompting reflection on the parallels that resonate with aspects of our own reality.

  1. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968): In Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal work, the HAL 9000 computer system serves as a futuristic email interface. However, HAL’s eerie twist introduces a cautionary element, exploring the intersection of artificial intelligence and space communication.
  2. “Star Trek” Franchise (1966-present): The iconic “hailing frequencies open” phrase from “Star Trek” symbolizes the show’s vision of subspace communication. This fictional technology allows instantaneous messaging across vast interstellar distances, inspiring the imagination of viewers and shaping popular culture.
  3. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams (1979): In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” cosmic communication is whimsically portrayed through devices like the Babel fish, offering instant translation between different species, and the Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic, allowing hitchhikers to signal passing spaceships with a wave. The series humorously explores the challenges and absurdities of interstellar communication.
  4. “Space Mail” edited by Isaac Asimov et al (1980): Space Mail gets a special mention here as it is one of the science fiction works that inspired “Space Email“. It is about cosmic experiences, space correspondence and extraterrestrial pen-pals. It allows readers to enter the private lives of everyday earthlings and spectacular superbeings. Its two volumes tells science fiction stories by ingeniously presenting them as real-life letters, diaries, and memos, delivering bizarre, eerie, and emotionally charged signals from far beyond and messages from deep within.
  5. “Contact” by Carl Sagan (1985): In Carl Sagan’s novel, which was later adapted into a film, scientists receive a complex extraterrestrial message instructing them on how to build a machine for interstellar travel. This work explores the possibilities of cosmic communication with advanced civilizations.
  6. “Arrival” (2016): In this film based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” extraterrestrial beings communicate through a complex, non-linear language. The story delves into the challenges and beauty of deciphering cosmic messages, offering a unique perspective on interstellar communication.

YEAR 1965

Email’s humble beginnings can be traced back to MIT’s computers in 1965 with the advent of the ‘MAILBOX’ program. This innovative system allowed users to store electronic messages on the university’s computers, accessible by others during subsequent logins. While effective, the process was akin to leaving a note under a rock for someone else to find later, emphasizing the simplicity of these early electronic communications.

In 1969, a significant step was taken with the introduction of ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) by the US Department of Defense. This network interconnected multiple computers within the department, facilitating internal communication. The milestone moment occurred on October 29, 1969, when the inaugural message, presented below, was transmitted from one computer to another, over the ARPANET marking a crucial juncture in the evolution of email technology.

First message sent from computer to computer on ARPANET
First message sent from computer to computer on ARPANET

YEAR 1971

In 1971, a pivotal moment in the evolution of email unfolded when Ray Tomlinson introduced electronic mail, shaping it into the familiar form we recognize today, as part of ARPANET’s networked email system

This invention was so useful that it quickly spread to other networks. However, sending messages between computers on different networks was more complicated. When sending a message from one computer to another within a network, how would one specify where the message was intended to go? Ray Tomlinson solved this problem by introducing the “@” symbol.

Roy Tomlinson Showing Off His @ Sign
Roy Tomlinson Showing Off His @ Sign

Thanks to the “@ symbol”, specifying the destination for a message now became as simple as addressing it: “username@computername”, which is how email has been addressed ever since. This simple but ingenious solution made it easy for people to send emails to each other, even if they were located in different parts of the world.

In 1976, a significant shift occurred as 75% of all ARPANET traffic transformed into electronic mail. Recognizing the utility of this medium, discussions arose about the potential to send emails beyond internal networks, sparking the idea of inter-organizational communication that would later pave the way for the internet.

As the practice of emailing between organizations gained traction, a demand emerged for software capable of efficiently storing and organizing these messages. This necessity led to the rapid development of early versions of what we now know as the modern email inbox.

1980s

Moving into the 1980s, during the internet’s early stages, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) started linking people across the globe. Simultaneously, email “hosting” sites emerged, vying for prominence in the expanding internet landscape. For many new internet users, electronic mail became the first practical application of this thrilling new medium.

YEAR 1993

By 1993, the term “electronic mail” had evolved into the more succinct “email” in everyday language, reflecting the growing prevalence of internet use. In the following years, key players such as America Online (AOL), Echomail, Hotmail, and Yahoo played pivotal roles in shaping both the internet and the email landscape. Through strategic marketing efforts, they enhanced accessibility and introduced the advantages of the World Wide Web to a significantly broader audience.

AOL CD

In the late 1990s, internet usage experienced a remarkable surge, skyrocketing from 55 million users worldwide in 1997 to an astounding 400 million by 1999. As the internet’s market potential became unmistakably clear, the proliferation of email spam surged, necessitating the development of email sorting software.

By the turn of the millennium, possessing an email “address” had shifted from a luxury or curiosity to a societal expectation on par with having a phone number. This marked the earnest beginning of the email era, firmly establishing electronic communication as an integral part of everyday life.

YEAR 2023 – ∞

In the present day, email stands as a cornerstone of our digital lives, seamlessly woven into the fabric of our daily routines. It serves as a linchpin for communication, a conduit for professional collaboration, and a vital channel for personal correspondence. Beyond its original role, email has evolved to encompass multimedia elements, enabling voice and video calls, file sharing, and facilitating the conduct of online transactions. Our reliance on email has grown so profound that it has become an integral part of our online identity, shaping how we engage with the world and manage our affairs.

Looking ahead, the future of email holds exciting possibilities. As technology advances, we anticipate further refinements in security, efficiency, and user experience. The integration of AI (artificial intelligence) may enhance email sorting, making our inboxes smarter and more tailored to our preferences. Moreover, we may witness continued innovations in the realm of communication, with email evolving to accommodate emerging technologies and changing societal needs and even going inter-planetary.

The evolution of email tells a fascinating story rooted in human imagination, where science fiction envisioned possibilities long before they materialized. From light-speed communication to intricate interstellar languages, these narratives shaped the trajectory of email, reflecting human curiosity and creativity in the face of the unknown.

Beyond its technological progression, email’s journey is a testament to the enduring human quest for efficient communication. It underscores that imagination is the force driving our existence, influencing thoughts, actions, and innovations across diverse fields.

As we stand at the threshold of tomorrow, the ongoing narrative of email promises to shape and enhance our digital interactions, a reminder that the future unfolds through the lens of our collective imagination, marking the remarkable transition from fiction to reality.

Thanks for embarking on this cosmic journey through the history of email with me! Your time travel through the realms of Sci-Fi and reality is truly appreciated. Until our next warp-speed exploration into the unknown, stay astronomically curious!

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Author

Barrister Fraz Wahlah CEO Rocket

Barrister Fraz Wahlah

Founder @ Space Email + Rocket

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