Spam turning 30 this month; no gifts, please
Thu May 1, 2008
The date: May 3, 1978. The culprit: Gary Thuerk, a marketer for the old Digital Equipment Corporation. His crime: Sending a sales e-mail to 393 users on Arpanet (then a U.S. government computer network and the predecessor of today's Internet). Little did Thuerk know that he'd just become the world's first spammer.
That first piece of junk e-mail (which wasn't called "spam" until about 15 years later) has been memorialized over at Brad Templeton's Web site (Templeton is a Net pioneer, the creator of the legendary rec.humor.funny Usenet group, and chairman of the Eletronic Frontier Foundation), along with a thread of outraged replies.
So, without further ado, here you go—the world's first spam (presented in its original all-caps format):
Mail-from: DEC-MARLBORO rcvd at 3-May-78 0955-PDT
Date: 1 May 1978 1233-EDT
From: THUERK at DEC-MARLBORO
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 COMPUTER ARCHITECTURE. BOTH THE DECSYSTEM-2060T AND 2020T OFFER FULL ARPANET SUPPORT UNDER THE TOPS-20 OPERATING SYSTEM. THE DECSYSTEM-2060 IS AN UPWARD EXTENSION OF THE CURRENT DECSYSTEM 2040 AND 2050 FAMILY. THE DECSYSTEM-2020 IS A NEW LOW END MEMBER OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY AND FULLY SOFTWARE COMPATIBLE WITH ALL OF THE OTHER DECSYSTEM-20 MODELS.
WE INVITE YOU TO COME SEE THE 2020 AND HEAR ABOUT THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY AT THE TWO PRODUCT PRESENTATIONS WE WILL BE GIVING IN CALIFORNIA THIS MONTH. THE LOCATIONS WILL BE:
TUESDAY, MAY 9, 1978 - 2 PM
HYATT HOUSE (NEAR THE L.A. AIRPORT)
LOS ANGELES, CA
THURSDAY, MAY 11, 1978 - 2 PM
DUNFEY'S ROYAL COACH
SAN MATEO, CA
(4 MILES SOUTH OF S.F. AIRPORT AT BAYSHORE, RT 101 AND RT 92)
A 2020 WILL BE THERE FOR YOU TO VIEW. ALSO TERMINALS ON-LINE TO OTHER DECSYSTEM-20 SYSTEMS THROUGH THE ARPANET. IF YOU ARE UNABLE TO ATTEND, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CONTACT THE NEAREST DEC OFFICE FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE EXCITING DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY.
Thuerk's message was first greeted by a stern reprimand from one Major Raymond Czahor, chief administrator of Arpanet, followed by a long discussion thread as Arpanet users—many of whom were wary of censorship on their messaging network—mulled the impact of this first piece of junk e-mail:
"I don't see any place for advertising on the ARPAnet," user Mark Crispin wrote at the time. "Certainly not the bulk advertising of that DEC message. From the address list, it seems clear to me that the people it was sent to were the Californians listed in the last ARPAnet directory. This was a clear and flagrant abuse of the directory! I am not sure as to how far this should be carried though."
For the record, the pioneering spammer told the Wall Street Journal that his ground-breaking e-mail worked, drawing scores of leads and about $12 million in tech sales. Thuerk says he never spammed again, and he reportedly does promos for spam-fighting companies, but he's not spending any time blaming himself for the current spam epidemic. "If the airline loses your luggage do you blame the Wright brothers?" he told the Journal. I'm not sure I get the logic there, but...whatever.
Check out New Scientist Tech for an exhaustive story summarizing the history of spam and the top techniques used by spammers, including "botnets," "zombie" computers, and "word salad"—the odd literary excerpts that spammers use to fool junk mail filters.
You can also click here for our latest news and tips on beating back the flood of spam.
In the meantime...happy birthday, spam. You're looking younger every day. Sorry in advance for skipping the party.