Abstract: Selling E-Mail to America: MCI Mail and the Commercialization of Computer-Based Electronic Communication

Benjamin Schwantes


In 1983, MCI Communications rolled out a commercial electronic messaging service that offered business users the ability to send written messages instantly to other users on the MCI data network. While primitive email applications had been pioneered as early as the 1960s and more sophisticated electronic mail protocols for computer networks were introduced to ARPANET by 1973, electronic, computer-based communications were largely the domain of computer scientists. MCI Mail offered something very different than these early email systems, a turn-key electronic mail network specifically tailored to both private and business users. The paper offers a new perspective on a communication technology that we have come to perceive as merely a commodity. It highlights the contingent nature of emails' technical and commercial development and popularization. If commercial services such as MCI Mail had proven successful in the long run, we might have ended up with metered email or even balkanized email networks that allowed only limited interactivity. The paper draws important parallels between the commercialization of email and the development of other forms of commercial communication in the nineteenth century. By examining the commercialization of MCI Mail, the paper will explore an alternate development path within the broader history of commercial communication and computing in the twentieth century.