Spam Turns the Big 3-0


May 3, 1978: A Marketer Sends the First Spam Message

It had to start somewhere. Little did anyone know at the time that a relatively small-scale marketing idea would later set a precedent for future spammers generating millions of dollars in profit by targeting end users around the world. In 1978, however, Gary Thuerk, a marketing manager for Digital Equipment, paved the way for the spam industry with a program that sent a single e-mail message to numerous users over a network of government and university computers known as ARPAnet.

Initially, Thuerk send the message with the intention to publicize open houses in the Los Angeles and San Mateo areas where the company would be releasing its new computers. Thuerk reportedly wanted to send invitations to hundreds ARPAnet members, but realizing the enormity of that undertaking, innovated a way to send out one e-mail to everybody on the list. Despite the fact that this new marketing technique was extremely effective at generating sales, Thuerk received strong rebuke from his company and members of the network community, who criticized him for abusing e-mail technology for advertising purposes.

For a period of about 16 years following its introduction, spam was mainly relegated to fund raising and other promotional announcements via university networks, experts say.

"A lot of early spam (consisted of) people throwing up fliers trying to drum up some business or trying to make money or trying to get a message out about a social issue," said David Cowings, senior manager of operations for Symantec Security Response. "It was an annoyance."

In fact, the term "spam" didn't enter the vernacular for the intrusive, financially motivated mass e-mail until more than a decade after the infamous 1978 e-mail.