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Military communications project gave birth to e-mail

November 25, 2001

Though it seems a product of the 1990s, e-mail was invented in 1971, when a computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson wanted a way to send messages to users on other computers.

Working for Bolt Beranek and Newman, Tomlinson was part of the team commissioned by the Department of Defense to build what was known as Arpanet, a means of communicating should the United States fall under an attack that left top military commanders without traditional means of communications.

Arpanet was the first network, or arrangement of interconnecting, communicating machines, and it was the foundation for what eventually would become the Internet.

Arpanet's creators didn't realize their invention would revolutionize communications two decades later as the popularity of the Internet exploded and more Americans became ''wired.''

Similarly, Tomlinson thought little of what he considered a useful feature and a natural progression.

By 2000, there were nearly 900 million e-mail ''boxes'' worldwide, according to the United Messaging Year-End 2000 Mailbox Report.

In the United States, there are more than two e-mail accounts for every main telephone line, according to the World Fact Book.

And new data show Americans are not at all alone in the new era of communicating. In 2000, for the first time, there were more e-mail boxes outside the United States than in this country, according to United Messaging.

While various experts have differing estimates on the number of e-mails sent per year in the United States, all agree that electronic mail eclipses the 208 billion pieces of mail handled annually by the U.S. Postal Service.

Some have put the annual total of e-mails sent worldwide in 2000 at more than 1 trillion.

Access is a main concern

One of the problems facing the adoption of e-mail as a standard for non-physical mail is access. While the Internet has grown exponentially, experts agree a deep digital divide still exists.

Significantly fewer minority families and low-income families have access to e-mail.

At the same time, computers are hardly the sole means of accessing electronic mail.

Advances in technology now allow people to check e-mail through personal digital assistants, such as the PalmPilot. And the real growth has been in the mobile phone industry, where more units are being built with Internet access as a standard feature.


By Nik Bonopartis, Copyright © 2001, Poughkeepsie Journal.


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