Geek Trivia: Before spam was spam

What company do we credit with sending the first-known unsolicited commercial e-mail?

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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, 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 duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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