It is forty years since the first spam email was sent on 3rd May 1978. An unsolicited mail was sent to 379 recipients connected to the ARPANET advertising a new computer. It was more successful than most more recent spam, it netted the sender’s company $13 million worth of sales.
Anyone familiar with computer technology at the time would probably have thought the mail a service rather than a nuisance. Starting at Strode College in Somerset in September 1977, the A Level course included an hour of computing each week for the first term. We sat, two to a terminal, and tapped sums into a keyboard, the numbers appearing as white text on the background of monitors that resembled television sets. The tutor would telephone Bristol University and our terminals would be connected to something called a mainframe computer. The exercise seemed odd, its intention unclear, if computers were the future, why only an hour a week for the first term of a two year course?
Electronic mail would presumably have been technically possible, but the cost of a machine capable of sending and receiving mail, and the technical expertise required to operate it, were beyond the pocket and competence of most people. Such investment would have caused one to take a dim view of the spam with which we are now familiar.
It was nearly twenty years before I acquired an email address: firstname.lastname@example.org, nor was it free – in memory it cost $4.99 a month. Perhaps it was the complexity of the address, or the fact that the address was provided for a fee, or just that spammers were much rarer, but spam emails were few and far between. Only when switching to a free service in 1999 did the unsolicited mail become an irritation.
Spam is said now to account for some 60% of emails, with the United States and China being the chief sources of the nuisance mail in circulation, but why is some of it sent at all? The first spam mail sent forty years ago was from a genuine sender offering a genuine product, sometimes the senders of spam email now seem people more to be pitied than despised. Spam is dully uniform in its content: medications at discount prices; financial deals at unrivalled interests rates; young Russian women looking for husbands; Asian women looking for exciting partners; Mrs Rose Williams in Cote d’Ivoire who is dying and offering a Christian recipient millions of dollars from her late husband’s estate – nothing of interest and certainly nothing approaching a credible contact to which anyone might respond.
“Lovely spam! Wonderful spam!” sang the choir on Monty Python, in praise of tinned luncheon meat. Someone, somewhere out there is singing a similar song about the emails picked up in the filters of most inboxes, otherwise they would not keep sending it. Like the purchasers of the computers in 1978, there must be people who make unsolicited emails worthwhile, someone must be sufficiently credulous to respond to the offers being made.