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The word spam has
several meanings, but two are probably the most prominent: a canned lunchmeat
concoction of pork shoulder and ham—and junk e-mail messages. Of course, most
amateur Internet historians realize that the former definition actually
correlates to the latter, but a considerably smaller percentage of Web surfers
know that the missing link between edible spam and electronic spam is Monty
Python.

For the half-dozen or so people out there who don’t who
Monty Python is, the name represents a British sketch comedy group that debuted
on BBC television in 1969 with the “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” program
and went on to create a series of cult-favorite movies and live performance
specials.

The spam connection comes, not surprisingly, from the
“SPAM sketch,” in which the Python crew portrays a dingy diner where
every menu item includes an unavoidable portion of spam (the food, not the
e-mail). The skit culminates in a small horde of Vikings singing a song where
the principal lyric is the annoying repetition of the word spam.

Thus, Monty Python made a pop-cultural connection (in geek
circles, anyway) between annoying repetition, unavoidable and unwanted
products, and spam. So when unavoidable, repetitious electronic communications
arose to foist unwanted commercial products on innocent computer users, the
label of spam was indisputably
appropriate.

Though most people use the word spam these days to describe junk e-mail, the label actually first
surfaced to describe mass Usenet postings. On April 12, 1994, every single
Usenet forum received a post advertising the services of immigration law
partners Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, and users dubbed it spam.

Though users had termed excessive multiple postings on any
bulletin board system as spamming or flooding before this date—writing
scripts to crash, corrupt, or force filtering on forum systems is a decades-old
practice—most consider the Canter & Siegel spam event the first commercial
spam in history.

Today, we often clarify the general term spam with the more clinical phrase, unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE). And
while no one called the first-known UCE spam,
it was a portent of e-mail tactics to come.

WHAT COMPANY DO WE CREDIT WITH SENDING THE FIRST-KNOWN
UNSOLICITED COMMERCIAL E-MAIL?

What company do we credit with sending the first-known
unsolicited commercial e-mail, thereby “inventing” the most pervasive
form of contemporary electronic spam?

The proto-spam message originated from Gary Thuerk, a marketer
for Digital Equipment Corporation (now part of Hewlett-Packard), who sent a
mass message to a group of West Coast ARPAnet (the military/academic Internet
predecessor) users on May 3, 1978. Thuerk intended the message
to encourage ARPAnet users, who were obviously high-end technology consumers,
to attend a product demonstration for the DEC-20, a new computer that offered built-in
ARPAnet protocol support.

The reaction was pretty much the same then as it is today:
ARPAnet users were annoyed and openly voiced their unhappiness about their
subjection to a marketing message by their own computers.

However, the stakes were a little higher back then—the DEC
message openly violated ARPAnet’s appropriate use policy. DEC received an official
complaint from the Defense Communications Agency, a part of the U.S. Department
of Defense that ran ARPAnet, and the company abandoned the practice of dumping
mass messages into ARPAnet.

It was likely the commercial element of the DEC message that
garnered most of the complaints, as users had previously employed mass mailings
with some frequency, usually for personal topics such as baby announcements
and, ahem, trivia. However, the DEC
message was crudely fashioned, as the mass address block spilled over into the
header and body of the message, and the e-mail was so large (because of the
mass address block) that it jammed or crashed several systems on ARPAnet. It’s
never a smart move to break the military’s toys.

By almost any contemporary definition, the DEC message
qualifies as spam. So even though the term hadn’t yet found this particular
definition back in 1978, hindsight would probably approve the label.

Incidentally, so would Hormel, the commercial food
manufacturer that makes the edible form of SPAM. In fact, Hormel does not
object to the use of the term spam to
describe unsolicited electronic messages, but the company insists that its own
food product (which first appeared in 1937, more than 40 years before the DEC
message) be distinguished as SPAM—always
written in all capital letters. Now that’s some tasty Geek Trivia.

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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
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books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.