Who Invented the Computer? Gary Thuerk and Spam

Who Invented the Computer? This is the forty-first installment in our ongoing series.

Spam is no one's favorite e-meal.

One interesting aspect of a highly visible or otherwise impactful tragic event is that people who are alive when it happens can quite often recall where they were and what they were doing when they first learned about it. Examples include: the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; the assassination of President John F. Kennedy Jr. on November 22, 1963; the explosion that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle on January 28, 1986; and the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as "flashbulb memory:" a vivid, enduring memory of a surprising of shocking event. Not every tragedy, of course, inspires such dramatic recall. In the case of at least one momentous calamity that casts a long shadow straight into the present, few could even tell you when or how it occurred, let along where they themselves were, or what they were doing, on that dark day.

On May 3, 1978, a marketing manager for Digital Equipment Corporation, one Gary Thuerk, sent a mass-mailed electronic message to 393 people connected to the U.S. Department of Defense’s ARPANET system. Thuerk's missive invited people to an open house to see his company's new mainframe computer, the DECSYSTEM-20, in operation.

Unbeknownst to Thuerk — but regretfully knownst to present-day historians — he had just unlocked a Pandora's box of digital horrors by sending the first widely-acknowledged spam e-mail.

Modest Beginnings

In appearance, Thuerk’s message (actually composed by an accomplice, engineer Carl Gartley) was a confusing mess. Unfamiliar with the ARPANET protocols, Gartley entered all of the e-mail addresses in the "To" field. The first 120 addresses fit, and the remaining 273 spilled over into the body of the message. Gartley also typed each character in uppercase.

The unique approach was moderately successful — DEC is believed to have sold several machines on account of the mass message — but it also provoked the ire of the federal government. ARPANET’s director sent Thuerk a return message stating that his friendly sales pitch was a "flagrant violation of the use of the ARPANET" and that the network was to be used for government business only.

One recipient, Richard Stallman of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, didn't mind the sales pitch, but had other qualms about its mode of delivery. "I thought a computer demo might have been interesting," he said in a news interview, "but nobody should be allowed to send a message with a header that long, no matter what it's about."

Duly cowed, Thuerk promised to never attempt such a thing again and, according to legend, predicted that it would be at least a decade before anyone else followed in his footsteps. The footsteps were unmistakable, however, and you can't wish a clearly bright idea out of existence.

Green Card?

E-mail caught on slowly, of course, and Thuerk's prediction was at least somewhat borne out. For more than a decade, in fact, spamming was mostly confined to the realm of harmless pranks and did relatively little damage. Rather unbelievably from a modern vantagepoint, proper etiquette was important to first-generation internet and e-mail pioneers.

Everything changed in 1994 when the National Science Foundation lifted its unofficial ban on commercial speech on the internet. On April 12 of that year, a husband and wife team of attorneys, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, began posting ads for their immigration services on USENET — a worldwide discussion and distribution system for computers.

Dubbed the "Green Card Lottery," the couple sent their ads to more than 5,000 discussion groups. Members of some groups complained so many times to their internet service providers (ISPs) that various mail servers were knocked offline for several days.

Despite being blasted with angry user messages, the couple continued their shenanigans, eventually establishing a spam-for-hire company and even co-authoring a book about marketing on the internet.

There is a semi-happy ending to their story: The couple's actions had violated the Tennessee State Bar Association's ban on illegal advertising practices and Canter was subsequently disbarred.

Early Prevention Efforts

Spam is no one's favorite e-meal.

As more people began to get online, e-mail marketers turned out in force, and spamming shifted into high gear, growing to the point that inboxes were regularly cluttering up with frivolous and false advertisements. Something needed to be done.

The first effort to control spam came from beleaguered ISPs, who created crude filters based on keywords, characters, and known patterns in spam e-mail subject lines. Over time, blacklists of known IP addresses were broadly shared.

Unfortunately, it proved impossible to keep these lists current and, as a result, they were not as effective as hoped, often allowing spam eemails to slip by. More troubling was that the filters frequently blocked legitimate e-mails from reaching their destinations.

As a work around, ISPs empowered users to white-list legitimate addresses. This approach worked reasonably well but, since it relied on users to make decisions, errors occurred frequently.

The mid-2000s saw the advent of the "SenderScore," a reputation system for ISPs that used sender authentication mechanisms to identify legitimate e-mail addresses. Unfortunately, this too had the weakness of relying on human senders to maintain their lists — something they often failed to do in the rush of business.

One Giant Leap

Spam filtering took a huge step forward in 2010 with the introduction of "engagement metrics." No longer were e-mail users responsible for maintaining ever-changing lists. E-mail clients such as Outlook, Mozilla, Apple Mail and others embraced the emergence of Big Data to create sophisticated programs that recorded all of their users' inbox activity to determine which e-mails were legit and which were spam.

Engagement metrics have consistently gotten better and have significantly reduced the amount of spam showing up in most inboxes. Spam messages are typically automatically sent to spam or trash folders as soon as they arrive, without the user even seeing them.

Among the metrics used by e-mail clients are 1) a user adding a sender to their address book, 2) moving an e-mail or spam to the trash folder, 3) forwarding an e-mail, and 4) just letting an e-mail sit in one's inbox.

Engagement metrics have been a game changer, but e-mail users must still be vigilant because the spammers have kept coming, and they, too, are evolving their methods. High-end estimates suggest that as much as 85 percent of all e-mails are spam, though some project that the actual figure could be lower by almost half.

How Did Monty Python Get Involved?  

Spam is no one's favorite e-meal.

Originally, e-mail users referred to spam simply as "junk mail" (a characterization still widely used today) or "unwanted e-mail."

The tradition of referring to unwanted e-mail as "spam" is generally believe to have taken hold in the early 1990s. Most believe this practice refers to a 1970 Monty Python skit set in a café frequented by Vikings where almost everything on the menu contains spam. The skit reaches a crescendo with the entire cast belting out, “SPAM! SPAM! SPAM! SPAM! SPAM!”

Hormel Foods, the corporation that produces the canned meat product "SPAM" — the trademarked word is in all caps — referenced by Monty Python has not actively resisted the association of its signature food item with nuisance e-mails.

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.