This week’s Tech Time Warp is all about “spam.” Spam can now be used as a noun or verb and even has an adjectival form: “spammy.” And to think, not long ago it was solely canned meat! So how did everyone’s least favorite type of communication phish its name from the much-maligned food product?
The story of spam email dates back to May 3, 1978, when Gary Thuerk sent the first unsolicited marketing message via ARPANET, a precursor to the internet. Thuerk worked in marketing at Digital Equipment Corp. and needed to get the word out about some new computer models. So, he directed his assistant to harvest addresses from the ARPANET directory so he could invite ARPANET users to two computer demos in California. The public response from ARPANET users was quick and decisive; the official word was that Thuerk’s message was a “flagrant violation” and that the network was for “official U.S. government business only.” (Unofficially, it’s estimated Thuerk’s message helped him sell up to $14 million in computers, so perhaps not everyone found the information unwelcome.)
Until the mid-1990s, this type of unsolicited message didn’t have a name of its own, but in 1994, Network World used the term “spam attack” to describe unwanted Usenet group messages. The phrase was an allusion to one of British comedy troupe Monty Python’s most famous sketches, in which a café serves spam, spam, and more spam—so much so that a group of Vikings sings “The Spam Song.” The earwormy skit was inspired by the proliferation of Spam on British menus following World War II. You just have to see this to understand it, really.
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