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A Brief History of Gmail

Free email is a staple of our modern lives. We create Gmail, Outlook and Yahoo emails for the low low cost of zero dollars. But it wasn’t always like that. Believe it or not, people used to pay for email! That’s right dear readers, people once had to pay for email. Although it may seem barbaric, it was the reality many people were faced with when email was in its infancy. What might surprise you even more is that email predates the Internet and ARPANET!


The history of email is pretty complicated, but I hope to give you the basic rundown of the history of email and why free email is so important to us today. Happy April Fools day! Or more relevantly… Happy 11th anniversary of Gmail day!

Email came from humble beginnings where it consisted of essentially leaving sticky notes on someone’s desk by leaving a file in a user’s specified directory while on the same network. Internet historians say that MAILBOX, an application developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965, was one of the first systems that provided this capability. Email continued to evolve due to its increasing relevance in a computer-enabled workspace. Many of these early emails systems are unlike what we would expect today. Many of them only allowed communication between the different terminals of a central mainframe.

But computers evolved quickly and the idea of a “mainframe” began to drift away. Computers were thinking and doing on their own and became networked together, rather than simply being terminals used to connect to the mainframe. A problem arose however of how to send emails between computers rather than between directories on a network; thankfully smart people had a solution!

Ray Tomlinson
Ray Tomlinson put the swag in email.

In 1971 Ray Tomlinson, a contractor at ARPA was working on what would later become the Internet. He proposed that email addresses be formated like so: name-of-the-user@name-of-the-computer, which we obviously still use today! He would end up creating the basic framework that would evolve into email as we know it later that year.

The First Email

We, as humans, have a tendency to want to be the “first” to do something, so we are understandably quick to wonder what the first email ever sent was. Unfortunately, we’re up for a disappointment because Ray Tomlinson doesn’t actually remember what he sent while testing the ARPANET email system.

I sent a number of test messages to myself from one machine to the other. The test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them. Most likely the first message was QWERTYUIOP or something similar.Ray Tomlinson

He does remember sending an email out to his coworkers after completing his work explaining how the new system worked and how they could use it. So, if you insist, we can call that the first email ever sent.

Continued Evolution

As time goes by, technology advances and email was no exception to that rule. Email as we know it is the result of several iterations of attempts at perfecting a system and integrating it into society to the point of common use. One of the first advances was offline email readers that allow users to download their emails from a server and view them offline, these evolved into programs like Microsoft Outlook that some still use today. As the protocols used for sending emails evolved, the World Wide Web grew along with it, in fact some would argue that email drove ARPANET to become the Internet that would foster the World Wide Web we know today.

But as the World Wide Web began to sprawl out, free personal email service providers began appearing for the first time. Web sites like Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail gave internet users easy access to personal email addresses which expanded the capabilities of the web. Then Gmail happened…


Several things set Gmail apart from its competition: site, storage and secrecy. These three factors combined allowed Gmail to skyrocket ahead of its competitors, and change the way email worked forever. Let’s go through them, shall we?


Although free email they provided was great, user interfaces of Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail were slow, bulky and hard to use. Gmail pioneers Paul Buchheit, Sanjeev Singh, Brian Rakowski and Kevin Fox were able to set Gmail apart from its competitors by creating a responsive and easy to use UI by using JavaScript, an approach that would later become known as AJAX. Their innovative and responsive UI would be instrumental in generating the hype and popularity Gmail would later be known for.


When Gmail was in its infancy, the standard size for free email accounts was 2 to 4 megabytes. That’s right- megabytes. To put that in comparison, the images on the front page of Mapshole right now are roughly .8 MBs. With this little space, users would have to delete emails constantly. Google decided to go big, real big. Google offered 1 gigabyte of storage. Although it might not seem like much now, 1GB was five hundred times the storage space that Microsoft’s Hotmail offered. Because Google launched Gmail on April Fool’s Day, many people originally thought it was a hoax. Gmail today offers 15GB of storage space and users can buy terabytes more.

Gmail was a tricky product within the inner workings of Google. Many people disagreed about its potential fate- whether it should be a paid service or a freely available one. Although it might seem obvious today, it was a difficult decision to make. But the decision to make Gmail free benefited Google in the ad revenue they’ve earned and the Web in the standards it set. Today Gmail is the second most popular email client holding 18% of the market behind Apple’s iPhone’s 26%.


The launch of Gmail is largely considered one of the best product launches in Silicon Valley history. By releasing Gmail on April 1st, Google immediately gained attention as a potential April Fool’s prank, but upon realizing Google was dead serious about its launch, users frantically applied to receive an elusive Gmail invite. The hype was massive and Gmail practically marketed itself. Gmail invites sold for over a $100 on eBay and some usernames sold for thousands. Gmail was a hit.


Gmail Now

person at computer black and white A Brief History of Gmail
Free email has become a staple of our everyday routines and actives.

Gmail changed the way we think about email forever, and Google spun Gmail into Google Accounts which have become the basis for Google’s tech empire. We take email and Gmail for granted nowadays for its convenience and capabilities despite the very crucial and critical role it plays in our lives and in our society. Even though Google reported only 2 hours of cumulative downtime in 2013, it makes us wonder what we would lose if we lost access to the various web services we rely on for days and hours instead of minutes.

Do you think we’ve become too reliant on web services like Gmail? What do you think would happen if we lost access to Gmail for two hours at the same time? Leave a comment in the comment section below and share your opinion!



Rob Rose

Rob Rose occasionally presses buttons on his keyboard and words appear. Sometimes they're funny. He enjoys talking, writing, random trivia and procrastination. He sometimes updates his Mapshole blog on time.

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