When a group of computer scientists at the University of Karlsruhe sent Germany's first e-mail 20 years ago, they had no idea they were heralding in the digital age.
Happy 20th, e-mail!
Even though it has only been a part of our collective consciousness for the last decade, for most people life without e-mail would be unimaginable. In both the business and private spheres, e-mail has long become part of our daily fabric. But what is an obvious part of daily life today was practically unthinkable 20 years ago when information scientists at the University of Karlsruhe sent the first German e-mail. At that time, understated Internet pioneer Werner Zorn described the event as a "very exciting," development.
On August 2, 1984, Zorn and a colleague sent the first-ever German e-mail. It was his response to the official welcoming e-mail from Csnet, a United States-developed electronic communication platform for scientists.
Clicking into history
It was a mouse click of historical importance. If the senders of the electronic mail had had any clue how important the event was, they probably would have opened a bottle of champagne. "We first learned the importance of August 2 later on," Zorn told the German news agency ddp. Back then, Zorn's e-mail address was simple to remember: zorn@germany. "What was new technologically at the time was that this was part of an open computer network," he recalled. The standardized interface made it possible for more and more people to get connected, and ultimately the technology would usurp the outmoded idea of centrally administered networks.
At the time, Karlsruhe became the main mode for e-mails being sent to and from Germany after it signed a contract with Csnet. With the opening of the node, Germany became the fourth country to become part of the network, following Canada, Sweden and Israel. In Germany, the network eased the work of scientists who needed to communicate with one another. The country's prestigious Fraunhofer and Max Planck institutes were the first customers, followed quickly by major industrial companies like Siemens and BASF.
The Internet has given Germans an instant connection with the rest of the world.
With the working title of "interconnection through networks," the computer scientists began their work on bringing the Internet to Germany in 1982 as part of a federal project to build a research network. Zorn and the professors and students around him were given the responsibility not only of connecting Germany to international networks but also for making it available to individual scientists who needed access to the collective knowledge of others around the world. After two years of work, the first successful test came on August 2, 1984.
Trouble in paradise -- for a minute
Zorn's success also ran into some unexpected resistance -- mainly from institutions that saw the work being done in Karlsruhe as unwanted competition. One consequence was that the university stopped receiving financial assistance for the project. But it didn't matter much -- the development was so widely accepted and adopted that the university made enough money installing mail connections for other organizations that it could ensure the project's survival.
The full shift to the Internet came in 1989, bringing the first direct Internet connections between Germany and the US. Today the main Internet servers in Germany are still hosted in Karlsruhe at the firm Schlund and Partner, where more the 3 million Internet domains are managed -- more domains than in any other European country.
Life before wormy spam
The Internet certainly changed life for many in Germany, but it also brought real problems with it, like Spam, which would become such a huge pest 20 years later that it would cause billions of euros in damages for European companies and threaten the utility of e-mail for many. Mass spams are also often used to spread worms and other viruses across the Internet.
Few Germans are familiar with the unique taste of this American pork product. But they all know its electronic doppelgänger.
Anti-virus software-maker McAfee said firms are forced to spend up to €2.5 billion ($3 billion) a year to prevent and eliminate virus and junk e-mail attacks. The German government -- which found itself under attack in May, logging 510,000 unwanted e-mails in just one week -- allocates about €7 million of its €32 billion annual IT budget for security. Under a European Union directive, all member states are required to pass stringent privacy laws that make spam a crime. But in May, the European Commission criticized Germany for not doing enough, legally, to stop its spread.
The country's strict data protection laws have so far made it difficult for politicians to tackle the problem of e-mail. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's coalition government proposed a bill earlier this year designed to punish spam abusers, but the bill is still awaiting a vote in parliament.
Back when the first e-mails were exchanged in Germany 20 years ago, an obscure canned American pork by product couldn't have been further from people's minds. Zorn and his people had one thought: Csnet and its welcome message. "This is your official welcome to Csnet! We are glad to have you aboard." Germany certainly was.