When Did Email Become Popular? Unpacking the Timeline

when did email become popular cover image with an envelope and email icon

Email was invented in the early 1970s as a way to communicate on ARPANET, the precursor to the internet. It gained widespread popularity in the 1990s as personal computers became more common in homes and workplaces. 

This surge was largely due to the convenience and efficiency that email brought to everyday communication.

Understanding when email became popular can enrich your appreciation of how digital communication has shaped the modern world. Join us as we explore the fascinating journey of email, its current state, and what the future might hold for this essential tool.

When Was Email Invented?

The first email, as we know it today, was invented in the 1970s. However, it evolved from earlier forms of electronic messaging systems that were not known to the general public. 

Let’s take a look at the timeline of the evolution of email and its popularity:

1971The first email message is sent.
1976Queen Elizabeth and Jimmy Carter use email.
1970-1979Other in-house mail systems emerge.
1976The first spam is identified.
1983TCP/IP protocol is born.
1989World Wide Web, email clients like MSMail and IBM Lotus Notes emerge.
1990sWebmail, major email clients like Yahoo come along.
2000sCAN-SPAM Act, Mobile email apps are born.
The timeline of the most important event in email history from the beginning

1960s: Mainframes and Internal Messaging 

The first time people used computers to send messages was when the staff at MIT decided to store messages on a mainframe computer. And that’s when history was made. 

Mainframe computers were huge systems with several users. Each user had to use the computer from a remote terminal at a specific and predetermined time. Each user could store their files in an exclusive location on the computer.

Somewhere down the line, there was a need for different users of the mainframe system to communicate with each other. 

In 1965, they designed a messaging system that allowed them to leave messages for others on the same computer. That’s how the idea of electronic messaging was born through MIT’s MAILBOX — and that was before the Internet came along. 

At this stage, this messaging system didn’t catch on. The main reason was that all the users who sent and received messages worked within several feet of each other, so they could easily walk into each other’s rooms and talk instead of leaving messages. 


The first email messages were sent within ARPANET in 1971. This messaging system’s main feature was the ability to send and receive messages instantly over the internet. 

ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was a US Department of Defense computer network. It had been designed to help military officials communicate through an internal network, but it eventually evolved into the Internet. 

Ray Tomlinson, an MIT graduate who worked on ARPANET, is known as the inventor of email. He decided to develop a messaging system that allowed users to send messages from one computer to another. His main incentive was to make MAILBOX more effective. 

He sent a message to himself and didn’t have a meaningful text. The email text was probably random letters QWERTY, the first letters on a computer keyboard’s top left row.  

Interestingly, Tomlinson defined a valid email address as consisting of the symbol @ used between the user’s name and its host location. It is one of the earliest internet-related symbols still used today. 

Computer users in ARPANET were encouraged to use the new messaging system, which became so popular that 75% of communications within ARPANET were through email in 1973. 

Over the decade, ARPANET continued to refine its email messaging program. For instance, email management programs were developed, allowing users to put messages into different files, and forward, delete, or reply to them. This was the first precursor of a modern mailbox

1970s: More Companies Embrace Email

After the invention of email, the idea gained widespread popularity, and many tech giants started to polish it. 

Some of the most famous companies developed a mailing system within their organizations. Most of them had in-house networks and used the APL computing language to develop their mailboxes.

The table below lists the most important companies that used 

YearEmail programCompany
1972UNIX mail programAT&T Bell Laboratories
1972 First APL mailbox Scientific Time Sharing Corporation
1973666 BOX (a new mailbox)Leslie Goldsmith for IPSA
1974IBM Office SystemIBM
1978Electronic mailCompuserv 
Companies that used an in-house mailing system

But the email didn’t go widespread until public figures promoted it: 

  • In 1976, Queen Elizabeth II used ARPANET to send the first royal electronic mail in history. 
  • In the same year, Jimmy Carter used electronic email in his presidential campaigns. He and his assistant used email to coordinate activities and stay in touch. He became an advocate for email, but it was yet to be accessible to the general public. 

1980s: Traction Builds Among Businesses 

Companies and organizations continued to refine electronic mail technology through their in-office networks. They used it for messaging and automation. Some companies, like IBM, had global networks, which widened their reach and enabled international communication via electronic mail. 

By then, millions of people used these internal networks to communicate. However, this global communication was only possible for users connected to the IBM network, known as IBM VNET

This called for a universal network that connected people from all over the world. And that’s when the World Wide Web would come along. 

The TCP/IP Communications Protocol

Once again, we go back to ARPANET. Originally a government research project to facilitate information storage, ARPANET evolved into the Internet. 

Different scientists contributed to the evolution of the Internet as a solution to the limited reach of individual networks. These scientists created a universal communications protocol to let all machines connected to different networks communicate through a single network. 

Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf had been working on this protocol since the early 1970s and finally released it in 1981. Vint Cerf was also the first person to use the word “internet” to refer to a global network.  

And when ARPANET used the TCP/IP protocol in 1983, the internet was officially born. 

World Wide Web

The network that Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn developed paved the way for the modern internet. But Tim Bernes Lee, a British scientist who worked at CERN, deserves a dedicated mention in this piece. He conceived the idea of an international network through which people could communicate. 

He created one of the earliest web pages and paved the way for the widespread use of the Internet. In 1989, he created the World Wide Web, which we know today as the Internet.  

The First Email Software

After the Internet took the world by storm, several email-hosting websites emerged. Then, programs were developed and released to facilitate sending and receiving emails. 


Microsoft was among the first companies to release a dedicated email program. MSMail was Microsoft’s first email product, which worked for local area networks and had two versions for Mac and PC — which were developed later.  

MSMail is the first commercial email client, the predecessor of Outlook and Exchange, whose first version was released in 1989.

Lotus Notes

MSMail wasn’t the only commercial email software developed in 1989. Lotus Development Corporation released Lotus Notes in 1989 as a revolutionary emailing tool and sold 35,000 copies in the first year. 

It had many groundbreaking features that made it popular, including:

  • RSA cryptology for email encryption,
  • Autocorrect feature,
  • Notifications,
  • Access control.

Lotus Notes continued to grow and was acquired by IBM. It’s still available under HCL Notes

The First Internet Providers

The widespread availability of internet connections to the general public was another major milestone that caused email popularity to skyrocket. Before these ISPs, the internet was a special use-case limited to military and academic societies. 

The first internet service provider was a groundbreaking company called “The World.” 

One of the most important things that prevented email from becoming popular was the National Science Foundation‘s ban against private ISPs. This ban limited internet access to government and academic organizations. 

The World was one of the forerunners that tried to lift this ban and make dial-up internet accessible to many people. It was an instant hit, and it made many other private ISPs emerge. Compuservice and AOL were among the early internet providers that increased the popularity of email. 

Email Becomes Popular in the 1990s

This brief outline of email history shows a 20-year distance between the first email sent and its widespread popularity. During this time, different actors contributed to making email messaging fun and simple. 

We owe the popularity and availability of email messaging to these services: 

  • Compuserv. It allowed users to craft email messages through its simple editor. Writing an email with Compuserv didn’t require coding knowledge. 
  • MIME. Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension is an internet standard that makes emailing easier by allowing text, audio, video, and image files to be sent through email. 
  • Webmail. Again we have CERN to thank. In 1993, webmail was born, which meant people didn’t need a dedicated software program for emailing. Although the webmail developed in CERN didn’t become commercially available, it set the stage for future developments. In 1995, Lotus released the first web-based email platform. It was followed by Hotmail, which emerged in 1996. 
  • POP3 and IMAP: POP3 and IMAP are protocols for fetching emails from remote servers. IMAP syncs emails across multiple devices, but POP3 is great if you only need to check your emails from one device.

The First Trends in Email Marketing 

You may think that the first mass email services emerged recently. While it may be a valid idea, the first marketing message is almost as old as the first email ever sent. So, it goes way back before the internet came along. 

The First Spam

In 1978, Gary Thuerk launched the first email marketing campaign on ARPANET. He sent a message to 400 users to promote his company’s computer products. 

Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out the way he imagined. His recipients considered the message unsolicited. That’s how he became the world’s first spam email sender.  

Gary Thuerk’s Digital Equipment Corporation is considered the first email marketing company and the first to send an email blast

The First Email Marketers’ Friends

While the first email marketing campaigns are difficult to trace, it seems that the introduction of Hotmail was a major factor that made email marketing a viable and budget-friendly method. Before Webmail and Hotmail, people had to use paid services to access email

The ability to access mail over a browser opened up huge horizons for email marketers. Now, they could reach any internet user through their web-based email interfaces. 

The First ESP

While marketers embraced the power of email when it became popular in the 1990s, the first attempts to send mass emails date back to the 1980s. 

The first email providers that sent mass emails to a list of subscribers emerged in 1985. BITNET belonged to a group of ESPs called LISTSERV, which kept a list of email subscribers and sent an email message to every one of them. 

This was before the internet came along, so the email subscribers belonged to the same network, which was an academic network in Paris. 

Another difference is that the emails were not promotional or business-related. This mass messaging system was like an online forum that informed people of upcoming news or allowed users to ask technical questions. 

How Popular Was Email in the 2000s

The popularity of email continued to grow in the 2000s.

These are the trends that led to a surge in email popularity. 

  1. Email on mobile devices. With the launch of the BlackBerry 5810 in 2002, the email became constantly accessible. People could now read their messages on the go, making email more popular. 
  2. The CAN-SPAM Act. Spam was becoming a serious issue that could make email obsolete. But the CAN-SPAM Act came along in 2003 to protect users and remove the threats against email use. 
  3. The global pandemic. More recently, email proved its essential role in our lives. The pandemic made everything remote, and without the help of email, everything would have been more challenging. 

The Popularity of Email Today

Nearly four decades after the first email was sent, email is still a primary means of communication. Social media and instant messaging have made communication much easier, but email continues to offer better services to make it relevant in business, personal, academic, and other fields. 

Just take a look at the statistics, and you’ll see the popularity of email today. 

  • As of April 2024, 9.5 billion emails were sent every day in the United States, the highest number sent in a country. Germany and Ireland are in second and third place with 8.5 and 8.4 billion emails, respectively. 
  • The number of email users around the world was 4.26 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow to 4.73 billion in 2026.  
  • In 2023, 347.3 billion emails were sent worldwide. This number is expected to grow to 361.6 billion in 2024.  
  • In 2022, email was the second most popular mode of communication.  
  • 99% of email users open their apps and check their inboxes daily, which is a true testament to email popularity. 

The Future of Email

Some experts believed that email and email marketing were on the way out and would be gone before 2020. But the numbers have proved otherwise. 

Mobile optimization, enhanced email security, cloud storage, and multimedia file sharing are among the most important factors that keep email relevant in the lives of digital citizens. 

These are future trends that are already here. 

  • Artificial Intelligence. Email clients use AI to fight spam and offer a better user experience. Email marketers use AI to write more effective emails and automate their campaigns more neatly. In 2023, 33% of email marketers reported that they used AI in their campaigns. 
  • Biometrics. Email passwords may become a thing of the past in the near future. Biometrical data like fingerprints and face recognition will replace current passwords and make login easier. 
  • Integrations. Mobile apps offer integration at its best. They allow users to access their email messages on the go, offering a seamless experience. These integrations will continue to grow, making email even more ubiquitous in our lives. 

Maximize Your Email Impact with Campaign Refinery

Email has come a long way since its inception in the early 70s, transforming how we communicate. At Campaign Refinery, we’re taking email marketing to the next level. 

Founded in 2018, we specialize in high-deliverability solutions that help you build lasting relationships and drive consistent revenue.

Our cutting-edge tools are designed to optimize your campaigns and maximize engagement:

  • Automatic List Cleaning: Keep your email list pristine and performance-driven by automatically removing inactive subscribers and harmful addresses.
  • Engagement Gamification: Increase interaction and loyalty among your subscribers with our innovative point-based system.
  • Evergreen Flash Sales: Drive sales and create a sense of urgency with always fresh and timely campaigns.
  • Campaign Library: Access proven email campaign templates designed to achieve your marketing goals.
  • Exclusive Learning Resources: Enhance your email marketing skills with our exclusive guides and tutorials tailored to help you succeed.

Interested in smarter email marketing? Apply to join Campaign Refinery today! 

Similar Posts