How to Send an E‑mail: A 1984 British Television Broadcast Explains This “Simple” Process

Ear­li­er this month, the world got news of the death of a man whose name many of us had nev­er heard but whose act of inno­va­tion shaped what we do every day. “When his­to­ri­ans of the future study the ways infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy affect­ed people’s lives in the late 20th cen­tu­ry,” said his Econ­o­mist obit­u­ary, “they will sure­ly recog­nise e‑mail as one of the most pro­found. Today, about 2.5m e‑mails are sent every sec­ond. The first e‑mail of all, though” — to be pre­cise, “the first mes­sage between ter­mi­nals attached to sep­a­rate CPUs, albeit that these two com­put­ers stood side-by-side in the same room” — “was sent 45 years ago by Ray Tom­lin­son.”

Fif­teen years after that qui­et­ly his­to­ry-mak­ing trans­mis­sion, e‑mail had evolved to the point that it had become a sub­ject in the news. This 1984 seg­ment of the Thames Tele­vi­sion com­put­er show Data­base shows how one ear­ly-adopt­ing cou­ple, Pat and Julian Green of north Lon­don, com­mu­ni­cate with the world by con­nect­ing their com­put­er to, of all things, the tele­phone line. “It’s sim­ple, real­ly,” says Julian, unplug­ging a British Tele­com cable from one sock­et and plug­ging it into a modem, plug­ging a dif­fer­ent wire from the modem into the first sock­et, switch­ing on the modem, and then hand-dial­ing the num­ber of a “main com­put­er” — with his rotary phone. “Extreme­ly sim­ple,” he reit­er­ates.

What can they do on Micronet, their ser­vice provider, once con­nect­ed? They might read the news, have a look at “reviews of the soft­ware that’s cur­rent­ly avail­able” and even down­load some of it, or use the fea­ture that Pat (in addi­tion to her use of the com­put­er for “keep­ing house­hold records, such as what I have in the freez­er, and people’s tele­phone num­bers and address­es,” as well as “a word proces­sor for my let­ters, which always come out per­fect now”) describes as most excit­ing of all: “the mail­box where I write to oth­er peo­ple.” We see how she can use this new elec­tron­ic mail to ask her doc­tor to refill a pre­scrip­tion, and even to send a mes­sage to the Data­base stu­dio.

All this must have intrigued the view­ers of the day, who, if they had their own com­put­ers at the ready, could even “down­load” soft­ware straight from the broad­cast by record­ing the tone that plays over the show’s end cred­its. (As long as their com­put­ers were BBC Micros, that is, at least in this par­tic­u­lar episode.) The past 32 years have seen enthu­si­asm for new tech­nol­o­gy spread all across the world, turn­ing us all, in some sense, into Pat and Julian Greens. Today we mar­vel at all what we can do with our smart­phones, devices that would’ve seemed mag­i­cal in 1984, but in three decades from now, even our cur­rent tech­no­log­i­cal lives will sure­ly look quaint­er than any­thing in the Data­base archives.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Inter­net Imag­ined in 1969

From the Annals of Opti­mism: The News­pa­per Indus­try in 1981 Imag­ines its Dig­i­tal Future

Where Is Tech­nol­o­gy Tak­ing Us?

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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