2-min read

Spam and how it all started

“We invite you to come see the 2020 and hear about the DECSystem-20 family”, wrote Gary Thuerk of the Digital Equipment Corporation in an effort to let people in the technology field to know about his company. That email written in 1978 marked the beginning of the unsolicited junk emails which is notoriously known in the internet term as SPAM.

After selecting six hundred West Coast addresses, Thuerk realized that he would never have time to call each one of them, or even to send out hundreds of individual messages. Then another idea occurred to him: what if he simply used the network to dispatch a single e-mail to all of them?

The next moment he finished writing the message and hit the “Send” button, he became the father of SPAM.

As the Web evolves into an increasingly essential part of our life, the sheer volume of spam grow exponentially every year, and so, it would appear, do the sophisticated methods used to send it. Nearly 2 million e-mails are dispatched every second, a hundred and seventy-one billion messages a day. Most of those message have something to sell. Even the most foolish and unsavory advertisements can earn money–in part because the economic bar for success is so low. If somebody wants to send you junk mail the old-fashioned way, through the Postal Service, s/he has to pay for it; the more s/he sends, the greater the expense. With electronic junk mail the opposite is true: it costs a pittance to send a million messages–or even a billion–and recipients almost always spend more than the sender.

The original Spam (a contraction of “spiced ham”) is made by the Hormel Corporation, which sent enough cans to its overseas during the Second World War to feed every G.I. In a celebrated 1970 Monty Python skit, a diner tries repeatedly and in vain to order a dish, any dish, without Spam. She is drowned out by a group of Vikings in horned helmets, who chant the word dozens of times – “Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam!” – eliminating any possibility of rational thought. The word was rapidly adopted by computer programmers as a verb meaning to flood a chat room or a bulletin board with so much data that it crashes.

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