Anniversary: 30 years ago, the first 'spam' was emailed

Several days ago, the 30th anniversary of spam came and went.

We're talking email, and not Spam, the food product. Anyway, I looked at quite a few articles that ran on the day of the anniversary May 3 or around then, like this story that originally appeared in The Washington Post, and I can't find any that quoted the man who began it all, Gary Thuerk. I was particularly interested in what he might have to say because I was lucky enough to interview him for Entrepreneur magazine during the 25th anniversary of spam.

At the time, I was getting more spam than I ever had in my life. I get a lot now, but in 2003, I was bombarded, and my computer was riddled with viruses and Trojan horses and other fun things. So when I was assigned to interview Thuerk, I had a lot of choice words prepared for him. I was going to light into him like a barbecue. I couldn't wait to pummel him with my gratitude for what he did on May 3, 1978, which is to be the first to send an unprompted email to a small but select number of people who had email, and he tried to sell these elite computer users, naturally, a new type of computer. I admit I wasn't thinking like a professional, but had made this personal. I wanted to do my best 60 Minutes Mike Wallace impression, and for Thuerk to fold like a house of cards and apologize for unleashing such a rotten practice into the world.
So I tracked him down at Hewlett-Packard where he worked when he sent the email and was still working in 2003, and to my disappointment, within seconds I could tell I was dealing with a really nice guy. And as it turned out, he didn't like spam any more than anyone else. After all, he only sent his "spam" to 600 early email adopters decades before spam would spiral out of control.

So we ended up having a very pleasant interview, and I found myself wishing him no ill will whatsoever. It really took the wind out of my sails. If I couldn't blame this guy for everything I didn't like about email and the Internet, who could I blame?

Anyway, in the last week, I had two reporters who read my Entrepreneur article -- a journalist from a Spanish newspaper and another from NPR -- email and ask me if I had Gary Thuerk's contact information. I didn't. He had begged me not to print his email, and because he seemed like such a stand-up guy, I didn't make any special effort to hang onto it, and so now, I have no clue where he is. Ironically, Thuerk is quite a private person who, at least five years ago, had made a serious effort not to let his email wind up on any mailing lists or web sites. In other words, he wasn't getting any spam.

But if any of you out there run into him, be nice to the guy. I have a hunch that by now, 30 years after the anniversary and over 10 of having spam be an everyday PC nuisance, he has probably heard every spam-related joke and insult out there.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist, primarily for Entrepreneur magazine, and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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