Back in 1978, when the thing we now all think of as annoying,
unsolicited, inbox-clogging email was just the canned, spongy sandwich
meat, one man sent an email to 400 people, marketing his company’s new
With that one fateful move, email spam was born.
Gary Thuerk, now in sales at computer giant Hewlett-Packard Co., sent
out that original spam back when the Internet was called Arpanet, and
researchers and the military were the only ones using it. As a marketing
manager at the East Coast-based Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), Thuerk
sent out the bulk email inviting West Coast techies to a demonstration
of Dec’s new Decsystem-20.
When those early email users checked their inboxes, they discovered this
foreign-looking message with a cc list that took up so much room it
spilled into the message’s body. They simply had never seen a mass email
Some seemed happy to receive this nifty notification. Some people cursed
Thuerk when their computers crashed. And the Defense Communication
Agency scolded Thuerk, prohibited him from doing it again.
Despite the scolding, Thuerk says it was a great idea.
He saw these mass emails as a cheap, effective way to get a message to a
whole lot of people. He’s proud that he sent the first spam, comparing
his move with the Wright brothers’ virgin airplane flight.
In the 26 years since then, spam has spiraled into a daunting digital
phenomenon. Analysts estimate that 2.5 billion pieces of spam are
circulated every day, accounting for nine out of 10 American emails.
Spammers wreak havoc on Internet providers and corporate mail servers
everyday, forcing companies to hire technicians to do nothing but deal
with the deluge of spam.
Industry analyst firm Ferris Research estimates that in 2003, we wasted
15 hours deleting email, compared to 2.2 hours in 2000. And MessageLabs
Inc., a managed email security firm based in New York, says spam now
makes up more than 80 percent of all email being sent around the world.
The government even got in on the battle this past year, passing the
CAN-Spam Act. In a legislative attempt to combat what is largely seen as
a digital plague, the act applies civil and criminal penalties to
In a one-on-one interview with Datamation, Thuerk says he doesn’t
feel any regret for starting spam. People don’t throw cocktail weenies
at him when he walks into a party. Instead, he says they ask for his
autograph. Thuerk also talks about how successful that first spam was,
how he feels about being known as the Father of Spam, and, if he had the
chance, would he do it all over again.
Q: Who actually came up with the idea to mass email these
I did. I looked at sending out invitations and calling all of those
people, but it was too hard to reach them by phone and too expensive and
slow to print out invitations and send them. My project manager, Carl
Gartley, actually typed in all of the email addresses on and off for a
couple of days.
Q: What kind of reaction did you get?
It was a mixed reaction. Some people I saw were glad to have the
information… Other people said they didn’t want the email and that it
ate up all of the free space on their computer. It used up all the disk
space on a professor’s computer at the University of Utah.
Q: Was it effective?
It was very effective. We had a presentation in L.A. and in Silicon
Valley and a lot of people came to see the demonstration. It resulted in
$10 million to $12 million in sales over the next several years.
Q: Were you encouraged by the results?
I was very encouraged, but the DCA [Defense Communications Agency] said
I wasn’t allowed to do it again, and that they would take measures if I
did. Some people called and complained to my manager, Fred Wielham.
Q: What was the DCA’s reasoning behind telling you not to do it
They said Arpanet was considered a research vehicle, not to be used for
commercial uses. If someone had wanted to set up Amazon.com in those
days, they wouldn’t have been allowed. Everything changed when it became
Q: Did you continue to send spam after that warning?
I sent out more information to a few more people, but only one person at
a time. They were responses to inquiries, mostly. We didn’t do any more
mass mailing. The mass mail was sent to people we didn’t know. We sent
individual emails to the people we did know.
Q: What did you call these mass emails back then?
It wasn’t called spam. It was just unsolicited email.
Q: How do you know for sure that you sent the first spam?
Arpanet in its early development was mostly for research, not
productivity. Everything that went on back in those days was all kept
online, and there is readily available information that proves it.
Q: How do you feel about your title, The Father of Spam?
It’s been a lot of fun. I say to people, ”Don’t make me mad. I’m one of
the original spammers!” People always introduce me as the Father of
Spam. I never bring it up, but other people do.
Continue on to find out how people react to Thuerk when they find out who he is, and whether or not he would do it all over again.
Q: How do people react when they find out who you are?
You never really know what the reaction will be. Some people just ask,
”Did you really do that?” Other people want a picture or an autograph
— that kind of stuff. I only get a little bit of negative reaction and
mostly I just read it in emails or on Web sites. I never really get a
negative personal reaction.
Q: What do you think about spam today? Is it the plague of the
Internet or a valid marketing tool?
It’s a nuisance. It’s like the advertising you get in the mail at home.
The only difference is the government hasn’t taxed it yet or tried to
put a fee on it.
The public has grouped all kinds of email into the spam category…
Specifically, spam is just unsolicited email. There is a difference
between stuff that jumps up at you on Web site and spam… Spammers and
phishers sure are creating a bad name for spam. There is all kinds of
garbage being sent out. They are mass mailing just because they can.
Q: How much spam do you get?
I hardly get any spam at all. I don’t count the junk email I get. I get
a lot of that everyday. I don’t get spam daily, though… I never fill
out any personal information on Web sites because it all goes into some
kind of marketing database.
Q: How does it make you feel that some people have stopped using
email or don’t use it as much because of the amount of spam they’re
That’s OK. I’m also restricted in my use. I think about it before I send
anything and before I use the Web.
Q: Do you still send spam?
Yes. I have a couple of distribution lists… one for tech news and a
larger list for jokes and non-computer news. I send emails to these
groups of people, but not to anyone that I don’t know. These are groups
of people that expect to get it from me.
Q: What should be done to curb the amount of spam being sent
I don’t expect it to go away soon. I expect the government to figure out
a way to tax it. That is inevitable… Unless they find a technological
way to limit the amount of email, they will have to tax it. Once they
tax it, they will have control and will be able to regulate it.
Q: Do you think the CAN-Spam Act is effective?
I don’t know if it will do what they say it will do. I haven’t studied
it… but what happens with government stuff is that it gets too
confusing and overburdening. It becomes its own guerilla.
Q: Do you ever think about the fact that laws have been created to curb
spam, and that battling spam has grown into its own industry?
One guy I work with came up to me to thank me because his daughter got a
job [fighting spam] because of me. Stopping spam isn’t that much
different than stopping the security problems like worms and viruses.
It’s all related.
Q: Do you feel guilty for sending the first spam?
I never feel guilty. Someone would have done it… I am kind of like the
Wright brothers, flying the first airplane. It was a long time before
people took a commercial flight. I sent out the first mass email in 1978
and it wasn’t until 10 or 15 years later that people realized they can
send advertising over email for cheap.
Q: Would you do it all over again then?
Sure. The biggest complaint was not about the notification. It was that
the distribution list went into the body of the email, so you saw half
of the names in the actual email. All we had to do to do it smarter was
to make up a list of smaller distribution lists. It was efficient and
quick, and it was cheap.