Unsung innovators: Gary Thuerk, the father of spam

It seemed like a good idea at the time, back before junk e-mail even had a nickname, no less a place in computer history.

"I knew I was pushing the envelope," says Gary Thuerk, who on May 1, 1978, sent out the first unsolicited mass e-mailing in history. "I thought of it as e-marketing," he says about that first spam message, sent pre-Internet and two decades before most Americans were even getting their first e-mail address. "We wanted to reach as many as people as possible to let them know about our new product. It was coming out Dec. 20 of that year, and we didn't want to send invitations."

Thuerk, a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corp., sent his first mass e-mailing to 400 customers over the Arpanet, hoping to get attention, particularly from West Coast customers, for Digital's new T-series of VAX systems.

Instead, he ended up getting crowned, for better or worse, as the father of spam.

"Actually," Thuerk interjects, "I think of myself as the father of e-marketing. There's a difference."

"E-spam is a blast of unsolicited e-mail and/or malware to an unqualified list of recipients. It is unwanted by almost all of those who receive it," says Thuerk. In contrast, e-marketing is focused on a targeted list of people who "have a known or qualified interest in your product, service or the information you are sending."

Gary Thuerk then
Gary Thuerk now

Gary Thuerk, then and nowAnd, in fact, Thuerk's original spam "did work," he says. "We sold $13 million or $14 million worth" of the DEC machines through that e-mail campaign, Thuerk notes. On the negative side, "complaints started coming in almost immediately," he adds. A few days after the original e-mail, Thuerk recalls, an ARPAnet representative "called me up and chewed me out. He made me promise never to do it again."

Of the some 400 e-mails Thuerk sent out, he received only a few complaints. "The best complaint came from a guy at the University of Utah, who said when he got in the office in the morning, he couldn't use his computer because the spam had used up all his company's disk space."

Thuerk, a Chicago-area native, had a fascination with computers going back to his days at Marquette University, where he wrote programs in Fortran for an IBM 1670 mainframe. "I felt that eventually they were going to change the world of business, I just knew it."

Still, little did he know how his action that day in May 1978 would lead him to be one force changing business computing -- and not necessarily for the better, some would say. According to a June 2007 survey from the Progressive Policy Institute, more than 90% of all e-mails sent today are spam, clogging e-mail boxes from pole to pole. But Thuerk doesn't feel this is his fault. "Well," he observes, "you don't blame the Wright Brothers for every flying problem."

Thuerk says he had no idea just how big and bad spamming would get until, in the early 1990s, he "read a Computerworld article about a lawyer who sent out unsolicited e-mail to every UUNet user in Arizona. "I read that and thought, 'Oh no, now everything's going to go down the tubes ... because of lawyers,'" he says.

Thuerk says he gets mixed reactions when people discover he sent out the first spam in Internet history. "People either say, 'Wow! You sent the first spam!' Or they act like I gave them cooties."

Interestingly, Thuerk himself isn't easy to reach. He doesn't publish his phone number or e-mail address and has an industrial-strength spam blocker. Thuerk prefers to receive e-mail from people he has cleared first.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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