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[liberationtech] Who first created/coined email?

Sky (Jim Schuyler) sky at
Fri Mar 2 11:32:56 PST 2012

I understand you're looking for "email" specifically, but my earliest experience with systems where we exchanged notes to other system users asynchronously (which makes it "mail" rather than "chat") was Plato IV (Plato III did it too, but I wasn't on it) around 1969. I had implemented similar systems on MultiTutor by 1971 (large CDC systems with dial-in timesharing) and on my Courseware Design System (PDP-11 dial-ins), where they were integral to system functionality by 1975.

We were at the time also thinking of systems that would "dial up" each other to exchange such messages, but I don't know that anyone did it in that timeframe. Dial-up costs were a significant barrier. The internets changed this dynamic significantly. By 1980 when we were talking about interoperability, this began to be a factor.

Most people thought of this kind of interaction as BBS since you "dial in" to get your mail, and the real functional difference I see between that and email is the greater system interoperability that began in the early 1980s leading to "modern email."

-Jim (Sky) Schuyler

On Mar 2, 2012, at 10:44 AM, Yosem Companys wrote:

> > I can't find clarity about who first created a mechanism we can call
> > email on a timesharing system.
> Who first made a timeshared messaging system is one thing.  Who first
> coined the word "email" for electronic mail is another.  Both are
> worth looking into.
> If only the academics of the time had had a system for communicating
> ideas with each other, that had left a paper trail.  Hey wait, they
> did!  It was called papers and conferences and proceedings and
> journals.  If only the public had easy access to that stuff now, we
> could merely search it for the first occurrence of "email" and get an
> interesting data point.  Unfortunately, all that research
> correspondence is locked up behind paywalls, if it has been digitized
> at all.  Maybe one of you who has a paywall account (e.g. "ACM Digital
> Library" card or a similar IEEE thing) could do such a search?
> What does the O.E.D. say?  They're behind a paywall, too.
> The Usenet archives at show a single mention of
> EMAIL in 1981, but it refers to a specific program for email, and it
> originated in an ARPAnet mailing list that was gatewayed to Usenet.  A
> Human-Nets posting from 19 May 1981 by ROODE at SRI-KL (David Roode)
> complains about CompuServe, saying:
>  It truly does seem to me that their attitude embodies the idea that
>  their potential customers will be ignorant of any better way of doing
>  things than those they choose.  Their EMAIL program is the most
>  cumbersome messaging system I have seen, and its improved palatability
>  for the naive user over MM, MSG, RMAIL and the like is not clear to
>  me.
> (CompuServe ran on PDP-10s; what was the origin of the EMAIL program
> that they offered the public?)
> The first mention of email as a service (in the Google Groups archive)
> was more than a year later, on 15 October 1982, by my old friend
> Robert Elton Maas <REM at MIT-MC>, talking about PCNET, which is a
> project that I worked on with him (he wrote the 8080 CP/M
> implementation, I wrote the Apple II one, and we got them to exchange
> non-internet email over dialup modems, with each other and with a
> Commodore PET, using a nice packet protocol; we demoed it at the West
> Coast Computer Faire).  His message says in part:
>  A single network design should support all speeds of equipment
>  rather than requiring different speeds to be on different and
>  disjoint networks (at the least, gateways for the major services,
>  email, ftp, telnet) should exist even where differing equipment
>  requires differing low-level protocols.
> (The topic of that whole Human-Nets digest issue was "WorldNet", a
> hard-to-visualize dream about tying all sorts of computers together
> worldwide.)
> By 1983 there are a hundred references to email, in many newsgroups,
> including net.sources,, net.general, net.bicycle,
>, and net.sf-lovers.  Here's a notable one:
>  Newsgroups: net.mail
>  From: diam... at cwruecmp.UUCP (John Diamant)
>  Date: Thu, 10-Nov-83 00:28:06 EST
>  Local: Thurs, Nov 10 1983 12:28 am
>  Subject: Re: speaking of needed words
>  In response to the need for a word to distinguish between a letter and
>  electronic mail:  this word exists.  It is EMAIL (for electronic mail,
>  of course).
>  John Diamant                            Usenet: ...decvax!cwruecmp!diamant
>  Case Western Reserve University         CSNet:  diamant at Case
>  Cleveland, Ohio                         ARPA:   diamant.Case at Rand-Relay
> There's an interesting history of ARPANET email here:
> It was written by Ian R. Hardy of UC Berkeley in 1996 as a history
> thesis.  It uses the word "email" throughout, but doesn't go into the
> history of the word.  But it does mention the paucity of official
> references to electronic mail (as a network service) in early official
> ARPANET reports and such, quoting Ray Tomlinson and Frank Heart.
> Since email wasn't an official government project or priority, it
> wasn't mentioned til "about 1976", even though all the researchers
> were using it and it was 75% of the network traffic.
> RFC 808 of 1 March 1982, "Summary of Computer Mail Services Meeting"
> by Jon Postel documents a meeting held on 10 January 1979 at BBN.  Its
> appendix contains a list of all known electronic mail systems on the
> ARPAnet as of January 1979 (compiled by Dave Farber!) and their author
> and operating system.  The majority of these names use the word "mail"
> (e.g. RDMAIL, MAILER, Read-mail) but none use "email", nor does the
> RFC itself.
> Among the RFCs, the first RFC to include "email" or "e-mail" was RFC
> 977 of February 1986, for NNTP.  The word occurred in an example
> Usenet posting, apparently a real one snatched from a spool directory
> by the RFC author, from newsgroup net.unix-wizards, dated 25 Sep 85, and
> containing the concluding paragraph "Please reply by E-mail.  Thanks
> in advance."  The next was RFC 1048 of February 1988, "BOOTP Vendor
> Extensions", which provided contact information for registering
> additional data fields at a postal address, "or by E-mail as:
> JKREYNOLDS at ISI.EDU".  The next was RFC 1060 of March 1990, one of the
> "Assigned Numbers" series, which marked a change in the RFC format.
> It included an "Authors' Addresses" section, which contained "Email:
> JKREY at ISI.EDU" and "Email: POSTEL at ISI.EDU".  The previous Assigned
> Numbers, RFC 1010 of May 1987, did not have an "Authors' Addresses"
> section, and though it included a table of protocol designers and
> their companies and email addresses, no column heading was used to
> describe the email addresses.
> The first RFC to include the word "email" or "e-mail" in a sentence
> was RFC 1093 of February 1989, "The NSFNET Routing Architecture",
> whose introduction said, "Thanks also to: Milo Medin (NASA), John Moy
> (Proteon) and Greg Satz (Cisco) for discussing this document by email
> and/or phone."  They started coming thick and fast then, and by
> December 1989, RFC 1137's page headings called the document's topic
> "E-Mail Address and Quoted Strings".  By RFC 1336 in May 1992, Steve
> Crocker is quoted as saying:
>           E-mail dominates the Internet, and it's likely to remain the
>           dominant use of the Internet in the future.  Nonetheless, I
>           expect to see an exciting array of other applications which
>           become heavily used and cause a change in the perception of
>           the Internet as primarily a "mail system."
> This doesn't tell us the precise origin of the word, but it does
> indicate that in 1981-2 very few people on the ARPAnet and Usenet were
> using it, and that in 1983 its usage broke out on the Usenet.  Perhaps
> further inquiries should be made on the Usenet and Unix mail side of
> history.  And does anyone have conveniently searchable archives of
> early ARPAnet mailing lists, BITNET, CSNET, etc?
>        John
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