(WHTM) — On this day in 1978, at 12:33 EDT, the first spam email was sent on the internet, but this was only understood in retrospect. Email wasn’t called email yet, it was known as electronic mail. And the internet wasn’t the internet yet, it was the ARPANET, the Department of Defense computer network from which the internet grew. But in its small way, this message had many of the ingredients of the obnoxious, unwanted messages that plague our inboxes to this very day.

The mailing was sent out by Gary Thuerk, a marketer for the Digital Information Corporation in Boston, Massachusetts. It went out to 397 people on the ARPANET, mostly on the west coast, and advertised presentations in Los Angeles and San Mateo, California, by Digital Equipment Corporation for their line of mainframe computers: DECSYSTEM-2020, 2020T, 2060, and 2060T.

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Now, in one sense, Thuerk was doing nothing new. Advertising by mass mailings had been around for decades. (Does anyone else remember the annual Sears Christmas Catalog?) But Thuerk was the first to go electronic. In an interview with moosend.com earlier this year, he explained he was having problems contacting ARPANET users on the west coast, and figured this would be the way to reach a lot of people quickly.

The reaction to the email was…mixed. Many complained about it. Major Raymond Czahor, Chief of the ARPANET Management Branch, called it “A flagrant violation of the use of ARPANET as the network is to be used for official US Government business only!” Thuerk had to promise not to do it again.

On the other hand, Digital Equipment made over $12 million in sales.

And Thuerk can honestly claim that while the message may qualify as spam, it was not a scam spam. He wasn’t doing clickbait, botnets, malware downloads, or any of the other nasty tricks that one associates with spam emails. Spamming in that sense didn’t kick into high gear until the 1990s, when the internet got large enough that mass emails might actually reap a profit, and spreaders of malware had a good chance of triggering chain reactions. Since then it’s been an arms race between people coming up with technological tools to block spam, and people coming up with technological tools to get around the blocks.

So, where did the term “spam” come from? The general consensus is it was inspired by the “Spam Sketch” in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where a group of Vikings (?) in a restaurant that has Spam in all its menu offerings (?) keeps drowning out all other conversation by singing “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam”…

To see the original message, as well as some of the reactions, click here.

For the moosend.com interview with Gary Thuerk, click here.

To see the original Monty Python Flying Circus Spam Sketch, click here.

Other sources:

Wikipedia-history of spam email

Wikipedia-Digital Equipment Corporation

Guinness World Records