Scarcely a day passes without many of us using email, whether for work or personal reasons. Email has become a pervasive tool for us to stay in contact with colleagues, friends, and family, as well as a key method by which companies inform and update their customers. The scale of email is astounding: over 4 billion users, and over 300 billion messages per day.

The first email message sent over a network – how we use email today – was sent fifty years ago in October 1971. Ray Tomlinson, the author of that message who introduced the ‘@’ symbol format, describes the event as a forgettable moment. The suggestion from him is that the first email was “QWERTYUIOP” or something nonsensical – a test string, nothing more. Queen Elizabeth II would be the first head of state to send an email in early 1976, with President Jimmy Carter following later that year. In 1978, the first spam message was sent. In 1991, the first email was sent from outer space. Hotmail, one of the first free webmail platforms, was brought online in 1996. 

For most of us, email likely entered our lives in an unassuming way. Maybe we were assigned an email address when we started at school. Perhaps it was provided to us by our first Internet service provider (ISP). Or maybe we signed up for a free address because we needed it to order an item from a website. In the US, it seems like a given that young adults today have an email address, typically before they can drive a car. As we become adults, we may have multiple email addresses, each with their own purpose.

Many years ago, Comcast began working to include email as part of our connectivity service, at no additional charge to all subscribers. Over time that service grew quite a bit, and today we manage a platform for millions of users, delivering 250 million e-mails and blocking 175 million spam messages each day. Our email traffic is sent over the same smart, reliable network that delivers fast Internet speeds for customers to browse, videoconference, stream and game. And we prioritize security with xFi Advanced Security, which helps to protect our email with security checks at time-of-click for URLs within emails. 

Our engineers have worked with others across the global technology community to help create a safer ecosystem not just for our users, but for all email users. Working (and in some cases, leading) within organizations such as M3AAWG, IETF, and APWG, we’ve been able to help fight email-based messaging abuse and foster development in such technologies as DMARC, MTA-STS, and ARC. While continuing to develop technologies for the community, we’ve also deployed these within our own platform utilizing IPv6 and DNSSEC, deploying DANE and MTA-STS to help secure connections, and SPF/DKIM/DMARC to perform message authentication.

As engineers, every day we strive to create a better platform for users so that they can reliably and safely use their email to send and receive messages. A large portion of email today is related to business purposes; however, email has also served to replace letters and postcards. We may send emails to update friends and family on life events or share pictures. We may use email to reach out to an old friend, or to organize a 50th anniversary party. We can use email to connect in meaningful ways and this has never been more evident than over the last 18 months throughout the pandemic.

As we look back on the 50-year history of this amazing invention, I’m taking a moment to write a message or two that I will fondly look back on years from now.  I encourage you to also write an email, tell your children a story they haven’t heard, reconnect with an old friend, send a love letter, or write a family member to tell them how much they mean to you. Something they’ll want to save. It’s fun to step back and think beyond email as not only a quick blurb, but also something we can use for another 50 years to relate to each other in a meaningful way.

Alex Brotman, Sr. Engineer, Anti-Abuse & Messaging Policy