Parisian museums have a lot of mentions of ’email’, but usually that is because it is French for the enamel of which an exhibit is made. But the excellent Musée de l’Armée within Les Invalides has an exhibit showing an earlier kind of paperless communication: v-mail.
V-mail, short for victory mail, was run by the US armed forces in the Second World War. Letters were photographed, microfilmed, sent back to the US, then reprinted, saving on transportation costs. As this Wikipedia page says, the system also allowed both effective censoring (holding reprinted letters up to the light no longer helps) and removal of any espionage techniques such as microdots. It was based on a system pioneered in Britain by Imperial Airways (now British Airways, part of International Airlines Group) and Eastman Kodak (now in bankruptcy reorganisation).
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (partial free access, full access available for free with a UK library card number), the first use of email to mean electronic mail was in 1979, in the magazine Electronics, in a headline that read ‘Postal Service pushes ahead with E-mail’ (ironically given what email and other internet messaging has meant for postal services). Could the abbreviation have been inspired by wartime v-mail? The OED has a fabulously broad range of sources – for email as a verb its first reference is a Usenet forum from 1983, then later Loaded magazine and the script of Peep Show – but can’t help on that.
The first networked email was sent by Ray Tomlinson in late 1971 (between two computers sitting next to each other – he also thought of using @ to divide the individual and the organisation). However, ‘mail’ was used in preference to ’email’. This would still have been the case when the Queen sent her first email on 26 March 1976 at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern – although the Times court circular for the next day (again, available to many UK library card holders) ignores this, mentioning instead that she unveiled a plaque and had lunch.
Looking further, the inventor of email – as opposed to electronic mail – was V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai, aka Dr Email, in 1978. (He applied for and received a US copyright for email in 1982.) As with Ray Tomlinson he was developing already-existing ideas, but he does seem to be responsible for the name.* He says that there was a six-letter limit on program names in the Fortran IV language he was using – so, according to his website, he chose ’email’.
Was he echoing the word v-mail? Turns out he was 14 at the time, so as with most headlines that end with a question mark, the answer is ‘probably not’ – this is a bit of a shaggy blog story. But it is striking how the same verbal logic, of putting a letter before the word mail to denote a new way of providing it, has struck twice.
* Update: Ayyadurai is a controversial figure, who claims to have developed email software as we know it, and was credited with this by a since-corrected Washington Post article. He didn’t invent email; it does still seem possible that he invented the word ’email’, as this Gizmodo article relates.
For something a bit less speculative on the history of IT, I visited and wrote about Parc Xerox for Computing, back in 2000.