On a Sunday evening in May 1864, several British Members of Parliament were disturbed by a knock at the door and the delivery of a telegram. This was an unexpected and unusual occurrence at such a late hour. Expecting the worse, the politicians opened their envelopes and were surprised with messages concerning ― a dental practice? Messrs Gabriel, a firm of dentist, was sending out a friendly reminder that their dental practice would be open from 10am to 5pm until October.
“I have never had any dealings with Messrs Gabriel,” wrote a recipient in the London Times, “and beg to know by what right do they disturb me by a telegram which is simply the medium of advertisement?” The telegram was reprinted in many London newspapers, thus giving the dental firm more free publicity.
It was also the first example of what is known today as Spam. In fact, a copy of the telegram above lies in the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. And although telegraph spam never caught on in the UK, up until the Great Depression, telegram spam was commonly delivered to the wealthiest Americans with messages promising great, albeit sketchy investment offers.
The first spam message sent on what was to become the Internet—Arpanet—is attributed to Gary Thuerk, who on May 3, 1978 sent a message to a mailing list of 393 people promoting a new computer model from the now defunct Digital Equipment Corporation. The practice was quickly condemned by Arpanet users, but the spam email did help sell a few computers for DEC.
Of course these are all avant la lettre cases. “Spam” became more a commonly used word in the 1980’s, a term coined as an allusion to a sketch in the comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus where the word Spam was used repeatedly. The term was adopted to describe certain users of Bulletin Board Systems who would repeat “Spam” or images drawn in ASCII art a number of times to scroll other users’ text off the screen. With internet connections over phone lines, running on average at 0.0003 Mbits (compared to the 9 Mbit US average in 2013) it could take an enormous amount of time for a spammy logo to scroll to completion on a viewer’s terminal. The term spam later came to be used on Usenet to mean the repeated posting of the same message. And with the proliferation of email, spammers found another means to cast out their sketchy investment schemes, advertisements, and repetitive messages.
In 1998, the New Oxford Dictionary of English, which had previously only defined “Spam” in relation to the trademarked food product, added a second definition to its entry for “spam”: “Irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of newsgroups or users.”
Ten years after the addition of Spam into the Oxford English Dictionary, Spam email peaked, amounting to 92% of all email traffic for October 2008. This translated to 5,800,000,000,000 spam messages that month alone.
Today, spam messages account for about 70% of all email traffic. While the number is still high, we can thank better spam filters, law enforcement agencies, and more informed web users to the decline of unwanted digital detritus.