A Short History of Spam
We all know Spam when we see it. It floods our email boxes, it takes up spaces in forums, chat rooms, websites, it’s even begun to invade our smartphones, iPads and even MP3 players. How did it get started? Why is it here? What reasonable purpose does it have? Is there even a legitimate reason to use it by anyone?
Spam. We all know it. We all hate it, really. It’s, at its best, an annoyance. In most normal senses of the word, Spam is a waste of time. It invades our personal computers, our workstations and takes up our time having to delete it and get through the Spam dross in order for us to reach our valid emails.
How did Spam get its name? This is one of those historical connections that would make James Burke proud. First, before we detail the history of Spam as something we see in the internet connected world, we should explore the very beginnings of Spam in order to see how it all connects.
The original Spam was created by the Hormel Company in 1936 and first came to market in 1937. This is the meat that started the whole thing going. It appeared on American grocery store shelves in 1937, just as the Great Depression was nearing its end.
Spam is a concatenation of the words, Spiced Ham. It is made from chopped pork shoulder meat, with some ham meat added in, salt, water and potato starch to bind it all together. The gooey gelatinous glaze that covers the entire concoction when you open the can is formed from the cooling of meat and is properly called aspic.
You have to bear in mind that when Spam was first marketed, the amount of salt and the use of pork were considered viable ways to provide cheap meats to the population. As it was primarily composed of pork shoulder, the meat being sold in the can was considered prior to this as basically unusable meat. The shoulder of a pig is a large, dense bone and it is covered with a relatively thin, stringy layer of muscular meat that isn’t well suited to anything beyond stewing additives for pork flavor.
In true capitalistic fashion, the idea of throwing that bit of meat away from each shoulder of a pig from the slaughterhouses was something that hit Hormel right in the bottom line. So when they concocted Spam, they felt they had a real winner on their hands. It was cheap to produce, cheap to sell compared to ham, bacon or even pork chops. The poor could afford this meaty substance and they were grateful for the strong salty taste of meat.
Spam was promoted by the Hormel Girls from 1946 as a patriotic meat until they were disbanded in 1953. It was probably an economic decision. In the aftermath of World War II, Spam was heavily promoted and provided in Hawaii, Guam, the Marianas Island chain. To this day, those areas, even though Spam is sold in over forty-one countries, consume the most Spam per capita in the world. Those places are the only places in the world where Spam is somewhere in the menu at the local McDonalds operating in those areas.
Spam is not a highly nutritious food, but it isn’t the most horrible, either. A 3 ounce serving of Spam (four in a 12oz can) contains: 1,300 calories, 13 grams of protein, 3 grams of carbohydrates and a total of 27 grams of fat, 10 of those being saturated (the “bad” kind) fat. It’s very low cost, long shelf life and lack of refrigeration needed makes Spam a great choice for those with financial hardships. For this reason, many folks equate Spam with being in tough times.
In 2007, Hormel sold it’s 7,000,000,000th can of Spam. Seven Billion cans of Spam. That is a lot of chopped pork shoulder, baby.
All that is great, you say, but what the hell does that have to do with spam as email or forum messages? This is the part where the connections are made and it does, I think, get interesting, so please bear with me. Spam, as a cultural euphemism for annoying emails and whatnot actually got its start in 1970 in the land of Merry Old England – Great Britain.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a comedy troupe in Great Britain comprised of the performers, who were also the writers and animators, by the names of: Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. All these blokes were highly educated members of well-known colleges or universities. They started airing their show on the 5th of October 1969 and continued to broadcast their show until 1974. The seminal date that helps to coin email and forum message marketing as spam occurred on December 15th, 1970.
In 1970, the Flying Circus aired the skit, titled, simply enough, “Spam.” In this skit a pair of diners are in a greasy spoon diner and are attempting to order from the menu, where everything has a component of Spam to it. During the course of this three and a half minutes, the word spam was used at least one hundred and thirty-two times. As the pair attempts to order and asks questions of the counter girl, they discuss the menu items and their spam content.
As the word spam is used repeatedly, the other patrons, who are dressed as Vikings, begin to stand and sing, “Spam, spam, spam, wonderful spam,” getting louder as they do. Each time they start, they are shushed by the irate counter girl. As the skit goes on, however, the Vikings become more difficult to control, until at the end, the customers are raised up on wires as the Vikings sing gustily about spam. Other events occur in the skit and are incidental to it, yet all help to raise the silliness factor of the Spam singing Vikings.
In 1970, there was no Internet. There was, however, Arpanet. Arpanet began as a military advanced research project to prevent loss of communications in the event of a nuclear attack. In 1962, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in conjunction with the U. S. Air Force (the central command force in control of detecting incoming nuclear missile attacks and a response to them) began work on a project to create a decentralized communications network that would survive one or more nuclear hits and still function with what remained.
While the history of the creation and formation of the backbone that became the Internet is, in and of itself, quite fascinating, we’re going to skip it for this article. The first functional test bed for Arpa-Net appeared in 1965. The people putting all this together were not kids in some basement, they were highly respected and degreed scientists, engineers and technicians. They were quite distinctly highbrow eggheads. These were some of the first computer geeks the world has ever known.
It is no small wonder, then, that when Monty Python’s Flying Circus began to be aired in 1969 (four years into the establishment of a working inter-network) on American PBS broadcasts that these cloistered, highly intelligent people found it a great release from the rigorous and stressful work they engaged in – in secret at this time. It seems that highbrow and surrealistic humor is not only the geeks' province and purview, it is the crowning marriage of intelligence and humor designed with the intelligentsia of such a project in mind.
The first email system appeared around 1971. Can you now see the connection? At this time, only large universities, military research institutions and large corporate think tanks had access to Arpa-Net. At around this time, the government, realizing that the project’s reach was growing beyond the original parameters of a simple Command and Control system, handed the project to the Department of Defense and it was accordingly renamed Darpa-Net (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) putting the scope and mission from simple Nuclear Attack Command and Control to a working communications network that linked places such as Stanford University, MIT, the Rand Corporation, TRW, Air Force, Army, Navy and Defense Department installations and research agencies all over the United States and beyond.
By 1973, close to 75% of all the communications going through Darpa-Net was private and personal email communications. At this time, it was deemed prudent to dismantle many of the Defense Department connections (as such) and to turn the project over to the National Science Foundation.
The National Science Foundation began immediately working to connect all the colleges and universities it could to the nascent Internet, now called NSF-net. At this time, the NSF began to select private companies to administer and support sectors of the network and designated them Access Providers. At this point in time, it was still an entirely private network and didn’t allow commercial enterprise. However, as news of its use began to spread to more colleges and universities and private think tanks, the commercial sector began to hear more and more about it – and champed at the bit to get into it.
It just continued to grow and spread, but the internet wasn’t officially launched as such until Public Law 102-194 (which Al Gore co-authored) was passed in 1991. While Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet, he was responsible for its access to the public and commercial sectors beyond. Before this time, most of us web crawlers (I started using BBSs and Usenet groups in 1987) just called it the World Wide Web, in synch with the prefix for all Domain Name Addresses when name servers were introduced, circa 1984.
By this time, Spam was already well established into what we now call the Internet. It was called spam, because in the early entry of commercial enterprise, businesses would get onto a Usenet service (Bulletin Board Services or BBSs) and flood groups with repetitive marketing messages. Forum and Usenet members would respond to these floods with the words, "Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam," etc. as a way of indicating that they wished it would stop. It was silly and annoying, like those “Bloody Vikings,” from the skit by Monty Python.
It’s also important to note that a lot of people before that time did not just see the TV broadcast skit. Monty Python, when its shows were cancelled, took their act on the road and also made many recorded albums of their skits (I have: Live at City Center, which includes, Spam as one of its skits.) So there are more than one version of spam. There are different radio and recorded broadcasts, as well as the traveling show, that didn’t include the patrons being lifted away in the air and instead, ended with an operatic send up of the Vikings singing the spam song, with the counter girl ultimately saying in irritated stoicism, “Bloody Vikings.”
From those early days, where legitimate businesses began to flood Usenet groups and BBSs with their repetitive marketing (the first forms of junk mail on the internet) to now, the word spam has come to include many non-legitimate services such as pornographic websites, multi-level marketing schemes, email scams, even repetitive posts by members with rants and raves; and other, less savory, activity. While in 2007, Hormel may have sold its seven billionth can of Spam, it is estimated that in 2011 alone, seven trillion spam messages have been sent.
Spam is ubiquitous now. It is out there. It is a productive and bandwidth drain that creates a necessity in many Internet Service Providers to purchase more servers and bandwidth than they would otherwise need to handle the drain on their services due to spam. Spam is something we all would do well to avoid or at least have to deal with in small doses. Anything that can slow down the spam in a forum, emails, messaging services, internet websites, is something that could become a commercialized cash cow.
Now you know all you could ever really need to know about spam in all its forms. I hope this little history lesson, in the vein of “Connections: by James Burke” was at least interesting and informative.