Gary Thuerk: “People make the same mistakes over and over again”

Moosend got an exclusive interview with the Father of Spam, about email marketing, the first email campaign ever and… spam, of course!

Interview: Dora Pavlidou

If you think about it a little bit, you will come to realize that the most difficult thing of all, nowadays is:

-to be original,
-to do something for the very first time,
-to be there before anyone else does,
-to innovate.

If there’s anyone that can claim that he was the first human being to spam, then it should be Gary. Gary Thuerk.

For this reason, he entered the World Guinness Book of Records and I quote: “The world’s oldest spam was sent at 12:33 EDT on 3 May 1978 by Gary Thuerk (USA), then working for Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC, USA). It was sent to 397 email accounts on the ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) of the US Defense Dept., inviting them to a product demonstration of the DECSYSTEM-2020, 2020T, 2060 and 2060T computers. ARPAnet is regarded as the predecessor to the internet. The original email still exists” (source).

A funny incident… or something more than that?
You may now think that due to the experimental stage of his attempt, this incident would be remembered by everyone as a joke, a prank between youngsters, a foolish little game… Wait a minute: This email generated more than 12 million dollars in sales! Care to find out more? Moosend and myself to the Mission Impossible! To track down and interview mr FoS, the Father of Spam himself! He is now a consultant to businesses and a keynote speaker to events all over the world. You see, everyone is interested into learning more from the man who started it all!

So, without hesitation and further delay, let me introduce you to mr Gary Thuerk! You will learn a lot in this interview, as I did too!

Q: Let’s go back: Were you aware that you were sending the first email campaign? How come you decided to do it (and yes, you may hit us with some technical stuff)?

“I had problems reaching the ARPAnet users on the west (USA) coast (we were in the Boston MASS area, East coast). We wanted to invite them to see a demo of our DECsystem-20T (that supported packet switching) on the ARPAnet (Established in 1969, ARPANET served as a testbed for new networking technologies, linking many universities and research centers. (Source). Since we were already emailing with some of the ARPAnet users, we chose email to invite them to attend a demo of the first commercial computer to support the ARPAnet. We knew that this would be the first email campaign and would ruffle some feathers. First called electronic mail, it was spelled e-mail back then. I had my product manager, Carl Gartley type in about 400 email addresses on-line, from the ARPAnet directory (phone & email book), while I composed the invitation on-line (DECsystem-1080T). Carl used a VT-100 video terminal, but I only had a LA-100 printer terminal. We merged the e-mail addresses and invitation and hit send and off it went. We were given a DECsystem-1080 to use for the development project and the TOPS-20 operating system. The DECsystem (PDP-10) was a 36-bit word, time-sharing computer.  Tops-20 was the first commercial version of TENEX, which is the second version of Multix (or Multics). Unix was the 3rd version of Multix (or Multics), as a rewrite for one user, on a DEC PDP-11.

Now that I think of it, I just wanted to show our product to the market. That’s where innovation comes, when people try to solve a problem. A lot of early adopters wrote History just by putting different (existing) technologies together and they only did it because they wanted to solve a problem.

It was the first and only time that i spammed and that was it. And of course, it didn’t have anything to do with scam”.

Could you please share with us the stats from this first campaign?
“There was no app for the email campaign. We just used our email program with its text editor. The DEC e-mail worked across all the many Digital computer product lines. There were no email attachments and the email size was more limited. There were about 2,600 users on the ARPAnet back in 1978. I went through the paper directory and highlighted (in yellow) the names with email addresses that I wanted Carl Gartley to put into our e-mail system. The idea was to get someone to attend from all the possible user organizations on the west coast. The ARPAnet users were all at leading research universities or institutes (NGOs) and some US Military labs. We had about 20± people (prospects) at each of the 2 demos”.

It’s time for numbers. Instead of questions we threw the most important nowadays metrics to Gary and here are the responses.

What was the Return-On-Investment (ROI)?
“It resulted in about $12m+ in sales”.

Open rate? 🙂
“No way to know open rate, but I am guessing about 200 were read by the addressees”.

“No but about 40 people came to the demos. 40 out of 200 or 40 out of 400 = very good response”.

“No one could unsubscribe, but I did get a lot of complaints. However, the recipients did forward the email to other technical ARPAnet users”.  

Here’s the aftermath to the first email campaign.
What did you try to market with this email and what happened after that?
“We were marketing the first commercial computer to support packet switching (ARPAnet & Internet), to the ARPAnet community, the DECsystem-2060T, DECsystem-2040T and DECsystem1080T. (The “T” was for TENEX packet-switching support, which was a combination of Software and Hardware.) DEC computers then became even more dominate on the Internet. Digital followed with the introduction of the VAX with DECnet (it’s own commercial networking [packet-type]) and soon supported Ethernet LANs”.

How was it perceived at your?
““Turk” was pushing the envelope again, acting outside the box. I made it to the position of Marketing Manager at DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.) in 1976, only after one year in the company. For sure, my boss congratulated me for the sales, but 5 days later, he made me promise that I would never do it again: We got a phonecall from the Airforce Major (US Defence Communication Agency) who called to complain about what we did”.

They also call you “father of spam”. Does this bother you?
“No, I just smile, because most people remember me for being the Father of Espam.  But I am not over-friendly to those who want to beat-me-up or say they want to kill me.
The title “Father of spam” came out after the “Forgotten Pioneer” article in PCworld, March 2003. But like all the articles written without talking with me, the article contained errors”.

When and how did you find out that they call you “the father of email marketing”?
“I was working as a celebrity draw at a booth at the INTEROP Technology Conference & Expo in Las Vegas in 2007. The head of the company said, “You are really the father of e-Marketing”. That and “Father of Internet Marketing” sounds better than Father-of-spam”.

What are you doing now?
“I have been consulting, mostly to non-profits. I have been a judge at the high school robot competitions for several years, it is great fun. The Father of Espam gets to give a speech every once in a while”.

Are you involved with email marketing and how much do you think it has changed and, naturally, evolved?
“I am not doing any commercial email marketing, for myself (But I do have a small list of Associates and friends that I email Tech-stuff to, regularly). I do some email marketing in my consulting. And I also help with all aspects of marketing, business development and business management. I have observed the technology changes and noticed that people make the same mistakes over and over again. It is as if every new generation must go through the same learning curve by repeating the same mistakes. This is also true of computer programmers: Current coders make the same mistakes we did, 40-50 years ago”.

Are you subscribed to any newsletters?  Where do you usually subscribe and why?
“I subscribed to Computerworld in paper form, for decades.  Then in the 1990’s I switched to the on-line distribution until just recently. I also get an e-Marketing blog from Linkedin, but I may drop that one. I read the Wall Street Journal when I get a chance, good source of news from around the world”.

What is the heart of technology beating right now?
“We finally reached the point where computers started to change the medical profession. In the past, computers just… computerised what needed to be done. Now, technology is changing HOW it’s done. We can now collect all kinds of personal medical data, e.g. your constant running medical history. This is something that your local doctor can’t do. He is just able to take your physical data once or twice a year and can’t predict what will happen to you unless you actually have a crisis in his office. We now have the analytical tools to identify what leads to what, from a huge amount of data we are able to collect and process real time. This is amazing!”

Interesting little details
This email was first composed on the 1st of May 1978 and after some revisions it was ready to be sent on the 3rd of May of the same year. As the email could not be sent to hundreds of people at once, some of the recipients’ emails were accidentally included in the email. The recipients that got the email, forwarded to other people and Gary sent out a second email… That’s how this email, ended up being spam. That, and the fact that it was all written in ALL CAPS and that “This was a flagrant violation of the use of Arpanet as the network is to be used for official US Government business only!” according to Major Raymond Czahor, Chief of the ARPAnet Management Branch.

If you received this email back in 1978
If you were one of the recipients in this email campaign, please send me an email at Mr Gary Thuerk is looking for you!

And then, there were… the complaints
Since Gary wasn’t hiding his identity, the complaints started coming in very quickly. But, there was one guy that didn’t seem very bothered. RMS (that’s the guy) didn’t seem bothered at all: “I didn’t receive the DEC message, but I can’t imagine I would have been bothered if I have. I get tons of uninteresting mail, and system announcements about babies born, etc. At least a demo MIGHT have been interesting” he stated in a reply (8th May 1978). RMS aka Richard Matthew Stallman is the founder of the Free Software movement, the GNU project, the Free Software Foundation and the League for Programming Freedom, a very important political figure in the Free Software movement.

Read more about the reactions that the first mass email campaign sparked, here.

Note these

– Email was first written as e-mail, it later became e-mail and finally email
– Digital Equipment Corporation was the official name of the world’s largest mini-computer company. DEC was the product’s name. Customers began calling the company DEC or just Digital
– VAX, PDP, DECsystem, VT-, LA-, were all hardware product names
– VMS, TOPS, UNIX, ULTRIX, (and more) were all Operating Systems names