How ‘Electronic Mail’ Changed The World

An excerpt from the September 1980 Issue of Popular Science, in honor of Ray Tomlinson's passing

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On Saturday, March 5, 2016, computer programmer Ray Tomlinson passed away. He is credited with creating the first email system and including the @ symbol in email addresses, among other things. This article, written by John Free and originally published in the September 1980 issue of Popular Science, explores how “electronic mail” would come to revolutionize communication, both in the office and at home, as well as the then-current and future technologies that made it all possible.

A rush on a proposal for another “super project” isn’t unusual at Fluor Corp.’s Irvine, Calif., headquarters. Fluor is an engineering and management firm that tackles mammoth projects, such as the Alaska oil pipeline, all over the world. Under the supervision of Jeff Krause, dozens of word-processing technicians begin organizing the hundreds of typed pages needed for the job.

When the papers are ready, Krause feeds a batch of key proposal pages into an IBM 6/430 information processor. A microcomputer in the machine has helped establish a telecommunications link over ordinary telephone circuits with identical 6/430’s at Fluor divisions around the world. Now the machine in California begins transmitting pages of text, converted to a stream of digital data, to the other 6/430’s, where the data is printed on paper as text.

“We can now transmit a 64-page document from Irvine to England, the Netherlands, or West Germany in eight minutes—quite an improvement over the minimum mail delivery times of three days,” notes Krause.

In recent history, most messages have been transmitted in the form of words written on paper. The paper has then been carried physically from sender to receiver. But today, a revolution is under way. It is now possible to transmit messages in the form of electrical signals to almost any spot on the globe, and there reconstruct them into their original form—words written on paper—in seconds rather than days, weeks, or months.

“We can now transmit a 64-page document from Irvine to England in eight minutes.”

Right now, this system of electronic mail is used mostly by businesses. But as more complex systems are developed, they’ll become available to everyone. In fact, if you have a home computer, there are information networks you can plug into right now that give you access to electronic mail systems.

Transmitting written messages electronically isn’t new. Facsimile machines have been transmitting news pictures from the wire services to newspapers for decades. Business firms also use their computers to send and receive text messages in addition to numerical data. But new developments in telecommunications are expected to greatly increase the flow of electronic mail (EM) in the 1980’s.

One trend in the electronic office of the future is toward computerized, or “smart,” copying machines, word processors (text-oriented microcomputers), and typewriters that can send text pages stored in memory as EM at the touch of a button. New firms are setting up computer-based networks for EM customers that can translate communications between machines that don’t use the same electronic language.

Since EM seems so much faster and more efficient, why isn’t it used more frequently? One reason EM remains costly is that it must compete with television, voice, and computer-data telecommunications for limited transmission space on microwave and satellite links, cable, and telephone lines. New communications-satellite developments will have a major role in adding channels for electronic mail and all other telecommunications.

In addition, hardware, such as facsimile (fax) machines that copy and send documents, is still slow. This raises costs for transmission time. Errors from operators of keyboards can also discourage EM. Another major problem is that most EM equipment is incompatible—the output of a fax copier is electronic gibberish to a teletype machine.

Fast letters

Let’s follow the path of some EM you might originate at an office equipped with the latest electronic equipment. Say you’ve dictated a letter that others at company divisions should see the same day. A secretary might type the letter on an electronic typewriter that stores each character in its digital memory.

Instead of putting the first draft onto a piece of paper, the typist may push a typewriter button and send the letter over office cabling to a so-called communicating word processor in or near your office. This is a microcomputer with a keyboard and cathode-ray tube (CRT) that displays your entire letter on its screen. Since you want others at the office to add comments or okay the letter, you tap instructions on the keyboard that send another copy in a split second to their word processors.

Now you use the special software (programs) in the processor to manipulate the words on the CRT, changing them in the computer’s memory. You can easily insert sentences, shift paragraphs around, and correct spelling.

The letter becomes just a brief burst of digital data flowing with other telecommunications through office cabling.

Finally, you review and add some comments from your colleagues that have been sent back to your processor and stored in a separate memory. Is the letter—a series of switched circuits in a microcomputer memory—ready for mailing? Not quite. You’ll want some paper copies for later use, so you send an electronic copy to a nearby “smart” copier, then save the letter on the magnetic-disk recorder built into your machine. The copier, meanwhile, displays your letter on its CRT and enables you to select the type font you want. Dial in the number of copies, push RUN, and the CRT image of the letter is converted to light that charges a light-sensitive drum; the drum transfers toner to paper just like many conventional copiers.

Getting your letter to people at other divisions may involve simply typing their names and codes on your processor terminal and pushing a SEND key. Now the letter becomes just a brief burst of digital data flowing with other telecommunications through office cabling. The device that insures that it’s channeled to the right location might be the company’s digital PABX (private automatic branch exchange). This is the computerized equivalent of the familiar office telephone switchboard.

“Its development was spurred by the increase in data communications, and the key factor is that it allows voice, data, and text to be received through one device,” said Charles Norries, an International Data Corp. market researcher.

1980s word processors

Main-frame computers

“The PABX is emerging as the pivotal switching element for whatever communications devices are on the desk of the future, and fits into the trend toward the personal business terminal—a keyboard/CRT device that could end up on 20 million desks,” Norries said.

Datapoint Corp.’s Earl Stamen estimates it has installed some 300 PABX’s throughout the world equipped for electronic mail. Such systems are actually large main-frame computers equipped with many processors to handle multiple tasks.

Xerox Corp. and others, however, are planning to channel your EM about offices in a different way. Recently Xerox joined forces with computer maker Digital Equipment Corp. and Intel, a leading microcircuit firm. Xerox hopes to make its Ethernet communications system for office complexes a standard. Ethernet is simply a passive coaxial cable connecting all electronic office equipment. The single cable runs through the office complex, and each piece of hardware is connected to it through its own transceiver.

Intel will use its expertise in VLSI (very large scale integration) microcomputer chips to make this dispersed “smart” network possible. With it, the breakdown of one piece of equipment has no effect on other gear. The VLSI chip for your word processor would encode your letter into packets of digital information. The microcomputer/transceiver would then inject the letter into the Ethernet cable along with the address of the receiver—say, the “smart” copier. Bits of information in the packet must travel to the receiver and back in a specific time or the microcomputer assumes they’ve collided with another message. In that case, after a random delay, the missing bits are sent again.

The technique, researched for years and tested in Xerox offices, is very efficient at getting telecommunications through, according to Xerox. You would send your letter from a local-office Ethernet through “gateways” to outside communications networks. Each Ethernet system throughout the country would have its unique digital address.

Xerox hopes to make its Ethernet communications system for office complexes a standard.

Other companies seem impressed with the technique. Zilog, Inc., a micro-computer firm owned by Exxon (which is entering the EM field in a big way), has introduced a similar local-office network, calling it Z-Net.

Whether it’s a PABX, Ethernet, Z-Net, or another system that does the job, your letter must be fed into a long-distance communications network to reach several divisions of the company. A number of firms, so-called added-value common carriers, funnel the EM from many subscribers on to its destination. These companies often lease communication channels from other major carriers that use satellite, microwave, and telephone networks.

“By combining those channels with specially developed computer hardware and software, value-added carriers offer communication users a wide range of innovative services,” said Stanford Weinstein of Graphnet, Inc., the first such added-value carrier.

One such service uses the software to link millions of otherwise incompatible devices for generating EM. “Thus a business customer’s Telex terminal, for example, can now ‘talk to’ a distant office’s facsimile machine. Data from a CRT terminal can be output [displayed] on a TWX machine,” Weinstein said. (Telex and TWX are basic teletypewriter services used by many firms.)

Mail by phone

Another option, if your letter or other communication isn’t urgent, is to store the EM on a magnetic disk, then forward it at night when telephone rates are lower. Phone lines are frequently part of the communications link, and the Bell System and other companies are expected to enter the EM field with their own value-added software and equipment.

In July, GTE’s Telenet introduced a nationwide value-added EM service called Telemail. It offers each user an electronic “mailbox”—a central computer temporarily storing communications—accessible from anywhere with a desk-top or portable terminal. You simply attach your terminal to any phone, dial up your mailbox, and have your mail fed into the terminal’s memory for conversion into displayed text. ITT has a service called Faxpak that also links dissimilar fax machines. RCA and other carriers offer overseas transmission of EM.

Such “mailbox” services, in addition to forwarding correspondence and other EM documents, may be used to eliminate wasted time on the telephone.

“Three out of every four telephone calls go uncompleted on the first attempt,” said John Peters of GTE’s Telemail. This telephone “leapfrog” can go on for days until both parties are at their desks at the same time. When two-way conversation isn’t vital, you may find yourself leaving EM messages in the 1980’s.

Electronic “mailbox” services may be used to eliminate wasted time on the telephone.

Telephone systems, however, are also starting to use a related form of electronic mail: store-and-forward voice systems. The 3M Co., for example, has installed hardware at one location that enables employees to store a verbal message electronically when they can’t reach someone else at 3M. Economical mass memories, such as magnetic bubbles [PS, Oct. ’79], now permit voice messages, converted to digital signals, to be stored. Later, when the intended recipient checks his or her “mailbox,” the call can be converted from digital signals back into speech “see “Machines that Talk…and Listen,” PS, Aug.). A Pennsylvania AT&T subsidiary is testing a similar voice-mail system, and other hone companies and businesses are expected to enter this new market, too.

Bypassing phone links

While your letter, encoded as a digital signal, can flash through the telecommunications chain in seconds, it could travel much faster if telephone lines were not involved. The limited bandwidth (signal-carrying capacity) of phone lines may limit data transmissions to 9600 bits per second or less. Bits are the on-of-off pulses of controlling the speed of digital communications. Computers, controlling the speed at which EM is sent, must “throttle back” considerably when phone lines are used.

Next year, for businesses with large volumes of EM and other communications that will justify the expense, a technique for bypassing phone-line links will be available. This October, Satellite Business Systems (SBS) will launch the first of two communications satellites to directly link businesses and government agencies throughout the nation.

Sometime in 1981, SBS customers will be able to use 16- or 23-foot dish antennas installed on the roofs of their offices to beam EM, voice, computer data or TV teleconferences via SBS satellites to other offices with dish antennas around the country. Each rooftop earth station can send signals up to the satellites at 12 million bits per second.

The SBS satellites will use the untapped 12-and 14-GHz (billion hertz) frequencies to send and receive data. Since other communication systems are not using these bands, there are no interference problems, even in cities, and the small antennas are possible. Heavy rain, though, can attenuate these very high frequencies. SBS satellite antennas will concentrate the beans where rainfall is more frequent to help reduce potential interference problems. Customers will share channels by sending bursts of data within precise, split-second time slots.

Communications network proposed by Xerox, 1980
Communications network proposed by Xerox puts microwave transceivers at customer’s office (1), bypassing today’s low-capacity phone links. Messages would be beamed to a substation (2), then to an earth station (3) for transmission to a satellite (4). At destination, message from satellite travels a reverse path. An option would be message transmission to a control center (5) for storage. Satellite Business Systems will have a similar setup to speed electronic mail, but with direct office-to-satellite links. SBS antenna (inset) concentrates beams in some areas. Popular Science, September 1980

But the flood of information (EM, TV images, voice, and computer data) is still expected to eventually overwhelm SBS and similar planned satellite systems. “The geostationary arc that serves North and South America is getting very congested,” said Dr. John McElroy, director of NASA’s communications division. “Sometime in the early to mid-’90’s, we would like to bring on line added capacity to the geostationary arc,” he said.

“The most effective way to do that is via multibeam antennas,” Dr. McElroy added. AT&T’s Bell Labs is one of several organizations studying this technique. “At the present time, most satellites use one fixed beam, covering a wide area which includes most of the U.S.,” an AT&T spokesman explained at a recent telecommunications conference. “Our new technology would use a narrow microwave beam that would rapidly sweep across the entire U.S. in much the same way as an electron bean scans a TV screen,” he said. A beam could scan the U.S. in about 1/100 second, sending and receiving bursts of data in microseconds as it passed over earth stations. This technique permits the same frequency to be used simultaneously in many areas.

“By reducing the size of the beams to about one percent of the nation’s area, we believe we could increase satellite capacity very substantially,” the spokesman said. The narrow beams (see drawing) would also concentrate power and permit smaller, less costly ground antennas to be used.

For its satellite customers, SBS is anticipating printing problems from the torrents of digitized text beamed to their rooftop antennas. SBS is looking at a promising new high-speed copier from AM International. The copier can scan a page with a laser in two seconds, then use additional laser imaging to reproduce 70 pages per minute. The new fax machine also achieves a resolution of 300 lines per inch, contrasted with 96 for many conventional fax machines.

EM in the home

Some of the low-cost terminals introduced for residential EM use may have a dual function. Already, networks serving home-computer users for access to information banks (airline schedules, stocks, weather, etc.) can also deliver electronic mail between subscribers. It works just like the electronic mailbox service GTE introduced for commercial customers.

Other types of information-retrieval systems, such as the British Prestel or Viewdata, can also send messages between users. In this type of setup, low-cost terminals, tied to a phone and TV set, link subscribers to a central computer that can be used to access information or as an electronic mailbox. Articles detailing both of these home information/message systems are slated for upcoming issues of Popular Science.

Phone companies will undoubtedly play a role in home EM, too. One day you may be able to rent or buy a “smart” telephone with a tiny built-in facsimile scanner and a compact thermal printer, like those in calculators, to send and receive your electronic mail.