History Of Spam

Years ago, a British comedy act called Monty Python released a sketch (on an eclectic show called Monty Python's Flying Circus) called "spam, spam, spam". This skit involves a couple at a restaurant in which every meal seemed to contain spam. No matter what the poor couple tried to order, it was just repackaged spam.

This sketch was created well before the internet existed outside of a few computers connected together by phone lines. It was a bit prophetic, though, as the waitress in the sketch was just as annoying as email spam, and just as horrible to contemplate.

When the internet first began, there was no such thing as spam. There was plenty of email, but none of it was of a commercial nature. You see, the internet began as a military and educational project. Making money had nothing to do with anything, so there was no reason to send out commercial mailings.

Probably the first spam was written by an employee at Digital Equipment Corporation. It was intended to be sent to every email address on the ARPANET (which much later became the internet), but since space was limited the later names were truncated.

One of the first truly despicable spam messages came from a guy named Dave Rhodes. According to legend, he w as a college student who wrote an email advertising a pyramid scheme. This spam was not really an email message as it was posted to the Usenet (newsgroups) but the concept was the same. Lots and lots of people got to read an email advertising a silly scheme with a subject of "MAKE.MONEY.FAST!!". I'm sure that, just like today, may ignorant people responded and sent Dave their hard earned cash to purchase a fleeting dream.

As an interesting side note, it's very possible that "Dave Rhodes" never existed, at least not in 1986. The university which he supposedly attended has no record of this man. Since chain letters existed for years (way back into the 1970's) before, 1986 is very possibly the year in which someone simply typed one of these snail-mail letters into a computer and sent it off to the newsgroups.

In 1993, a man with the name of Richard Depew decided to introduce a concept known as retro-moderation. This would allow newsgroups to become a little bit more controlled, by having a moderator who would cancel postings after they had been made. While there were moderated newsgroups up to this point, Depew was suggesting moderating after the fact.

Depew wrote a program to delete these postings. Unfortunately, it had a bug and write 200 messages to the news.admin.policy newsgroup. This annoyed a lot of people, who, for the first time, called the messages "spam". This is the first known time that this kind of thing was referred to as spam. (See "Origin of the term spam to mean net abuse" for the full story.)

One of the first mass mailings on the Usenet was from Clarence L. Thomas IV. The subject was "Global Alert For All: Jesus is Coming Soon" and it was a long, boring email about the end of the world. This mailing occurred in January of 1994.

Spam in the modern sense began in 1994 when two "gentlemen" named Cantor and Siegel posted an advertisement for "Green Card Lottery". They posted this message to 6,000 newsgroups at the same time. They continued posting for some time, and reportedly mace some money from their efforts. This didn't save them, however, from becoming two of the most hated people on the entire internet.

They even wrote a book, titled "How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway". Their actions and this book probably helped open the unsuspecting internet world to spam. The book didn't sell well, and after a year or so the duo fell back into obscurity.



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