Email’s first real user was also the first person to compulsively check his inbox

The age-old ping.
The age-old ping.
Image: Reuters/Gleb Garanich
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Silicon Valley companies are frequently chastised for making their products so addictive. But the compulsion to check your email long predates the Facebook “like.”

In fact, email’s first real user was somewhat tethered to the invention. In the early 1970s, Stephen Lukasik was the head of the US government agency that is widely credited with creating the internet. In his book “Attention Merchants,” Columbia professor Tim Wu describes how Lukasik would lug around a 30-pound terminal so that he could check his messages. “As such, Lukasik may have been history’s first true email addict,” Wu writes.

Lukasik, now 87 and still an email user, at first objected to the term “addict” in a phone call with me this week. “Would you consider any businessman who has a terminal on his desk and uses email… an addict?” But about 20 minutes into our conversation, Lukasik’s wife, Ginny, interjected.

“I think the word ‘addict’ is used as a sort of affectionate term, I don’t see it as derogatory,” she said, to which I agreed. After all, we’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the working world who wouldn’t say they were at least somewhat addicted to their email or phone these days. “I remember traveling with Steve, he’d have it in my parents’ house, checking it,” she added. “It was incomprehensible to me at the time, but the damn thing went with us everywhere. I don’t disagree with what [Wu] wrote.” She was laughing, as was her husband when he answered: “Fair enough.”

Lukasik used the invention during his tenure as the head of Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, which eventually became DARPA) at the Department of Defense. He took it out of the small universe of technologists—like Ray Tomlinson, credited as the inventor of email—who were using it to send messages to each other, and made it a tool to manage an entire organization.

At first, he used it only to communicate with computer scientists at the agency, while sitting in his office. “But then something happened: Basically everyone else in ARPA noticed that I was spending more time talking to the [computer guys], because it was convenient,” he said. ”So they all realized, we better get on this too, because those computer guys are getting a larger share of his attention than we are.” Lukasik’s colleagues realized early on that “it’s better to be on it, like everyone else, because if you’re not on it, you’re just going to get left behind,” he said.

Lukasik would travel a fair amount while at ARPA. And thanks to the briefcase-sized terminal manufactured by Texas Instruments, he says, people back at headquarters wouldn’t even know he was gone.

“I would be at the meeting [in San Diego], but I would ask the host to make available to me a private room off the meeting room that would have a telephone,” he said. “At various times during the meeting, perhaps once an hour or something, I would get up from my seat, and I would pick up the telephone and I would clamp the telephone over this box that had two little rubber connectors,” he said. This meant he could dial his office or a local network and get his email and answer messages. “My movements were imperceptible for people in the DC office or any other place in the country,” he added.

The initial tool was clumsy, Lukasik said. As the first user who wasn’t directly involved in creating the technology, he was also the first to do user-testing, and he’d give the agency’s scientists feedback on how to improve the budding communication system. For example, in the beginning, you would get all of your email in the order in which it was received. “If you’re not saving email, that’s fine, but if you’re using it for management, you want to save it, you want to know what you said to someone,” Lukasik said. “If I had a hundred messages, I got the first one, I got the second one, but I had to wait for 99 messages before I got the new one.”

Lukasik would ask Lawrence Roberts, known as one of the founding fathers of the internet, for improvements, like the ability to put emails into different categories, or what we today call “folders.” He’d quickly get what he wanted. “Larry was very good, he or his contractors would [cook] up something in very short order.”

“You see, the computer scientists were not managing anything, they were developing things—I was using it for management,” Lukasik said.

I asked Lukasik how email changed in his life in those early days. He said that it eliminated the constant protection from the outside world provided by an administrative assistant. As an executive, email gave people direct access to the boss. Whether this was good or bad he didn’t say, but he generally found email “very useful.”

And thus, for better or for worse, our collective addiction began.