Frequently Made Mistakes

A number of mistakes about the early history of email are made frequently enough to bug me. For a while, I tried to rectify these errors, as they appeared, by pointing them out to the authors, but there are far too many to continue doing that. Hence, this page.

I did not press shift-2 to type an at sign. I think I first saw this one in a Wall Street Journal article that was an otherwise excellent account of the early history of email and the at sign. The keyboard of the model 33 Teletype on which I typed that fateful at sign was significantly different from current keyboards. The model 33 Teletype uses a mechanical encoder. The character code for the at sign puts it in the same group as the upper case letters (just before "A"), so a practical keyboard layout mandates that it be in a letter row and not in the digits row. In fact, it was on the "P" key and typed with the shift key. (Note, that I had earlier, on this page, stated that the "@" was to the right of the "P" key. Ironically, that was a mistake. My thanks to Dave Crocker for forwarding this reference to a picture of the keyboard that Ned Freed tracked down.)

No, I did not invent the at sign! The at sign has been around for centuries. It's possible I saved the at sign from extinction since some were considering removing the at sign from the keyboard and it would have followed the cent sign into exile. Now we all use the at sign sending email. Read about the history of the at sign.

Email was not invented in 1972; It was 1971. This one was my own fault. When the question of the origin of email surfaced (in 1993), I was asked when I had written SNDMSG. Frankly, my 22 year old memories were a bit fuzzy. I wasn't sure, but I guessed anyway and said, "1972". Big mistake! Further research into what else was going on at the time has led me to conclude that the earlier date of late 1971 (November-December-ish) is more accurate.

Some find it incredible that I don't remember something as significant as when the first email was sent or the first email program was running. Perhaps email itself was responsible since the announcement about how to send network messages to other computer users was sent by email. The hard copies went into the waste basket since no reminders were needed to remember to put an at sign and computer name in the address if you wanted to send a message to somebody at another computer.

I have seen a number of articles both on the internet and in print stating that the first email message was "QWERTYUIOP". 'Taint so. My original statement was that the first email message was something like "QWERTYUIOP". It is equally likely to have been "TESTING 1 2 3 4" or any other equally insignificant message. Apparently I didn't hedge the statement enough because this got turned into bald statements that "QWERTYUIOP" was the the first email message. Probably the only true statements about that first email are the it was all upper case (shouted) and the content was insignificant and forgetable (hence the amnesia).

Don't believe everything you read on the web. Remember, there are humans behind those web pages and humans make mistakes. Editors and publishers, especially, dislike tentative or indefinite statements because it gives the appearance that they have not researched the issue sufficiently. They go out of their way to avoid publishing such statements even, it seems, to the extent of making things up.

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