The First Spams

By Deane Barker on January 7, 2005

I’m reading Packt’s new book on SpamAssassin, and it’s shaping up to be a good one. More on the entire book later, but I found some interesting tidbits on the history of spam in the first few pages.

The first spam ever sent was on May 3, 1978 from a DEC rep named Gary Thuerk. He sent an email to every ARPANET address on the West Coast (all 393 of them) inviting them to a DEC product presentation. Some commentary and a copy of the legendary email are here along with the flood of outraged responses the email generated. This may not have been a spam, per se, but it was the first commercial, sales-oriented email.

Some of the responses are almost quaintly naive:

There are many companies in the U.S. and abroad that would like to have access to the Arpanet. Naturally all of them cannot have this access. Consequently if the ones that do have access can advertise their products to a very select market and the others cannot, this is really an unfair advantage.

Little did they know that this would be the least of their concerns…

Sixteen years later on April 12, 1994, spam took a huge leap forward when Laurence Canter, an immigration attorney from Arizona, spammed thousands of Usenet groups with a post advertising a green card lottery. This was the first mass, automated spam. CNet interviewed him a couple of years ago. Sadly, it turns out the spam was profitable:

[…] we generated a lot of business. The best I can recall we probably made somewhere between $100,000 to $200,000 related to that — which wasn’t remarkable in itself, except that the cost of doing it was negligible.

To bad this is still the case. No matter how much we hate it, the economics of spam will keep it around for the foreseeable future.



  1. I think it’s important to flag Canter’s number as unconfirmed and highly suspect. (“The best I can recall we probably made somewhere between $100,000 to $200,000 related to that …”) Immediately after his 1994 spam he co-authored a book of “spamming secrets” trying to convert his infamy into a (lucrative) public personna.

    Canter always seemed deeply resently of the internet backlash his spam provoked, so I wouldn’t be suprised if he now deliberately inflates his account of its returns. (I mean, why wouldn’t he know how wildly lucrative it was? Why does he have to say, “Golly, the best that I can recall, it made me rich!”)

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