Germany’s Email Pioneer on Why it Won’t Be Missed

By Lynsey Anderson |

By receiving the first email ever sent to Germany as well as creating the country’s first email server, Professor Michael Rotert’s place in the annals of Europe’s technological history is well and truly secured. But 28 years on, he now believes email itself is dying out – and that it won’t be missed when it’s gone.

With the rise of social networking and instant messaging services, Professor Rotert today compares sending an email to writing a letter the old-fashioned way; sometimes sentimental and not always necessary.

His journey to tech celebrity began in 1981 when he was given a teaching position at the University of Karlsruhe in what was then West Germany. He had previously studied computing science and economics at the same institution, and now spent several years as a research associate at the Institute of Telematics in Karlsruhe before being entrusted with the technical management of the computing centre within the computing science faculty.

It was then that, as a result of his academic status and links with the US, he had the opportunity to set up the first email server in Germany, something he recounted to Silicon Allee on a recent trip to Berlin.

Germany’s First Ever Email

It was August 2, 1984 when Michael Rotert received the first ever email sent to Germany. As it was before the domain name system was introduced, the text was simply sent to rotert@germany and it was through this address that any subsequent mail intended for German universities or institutions was directed. In order to create a working connection that allowed email to be exchanged, Professor Rotert had to install software that was sent to him and then integrate this software into his system.

He said: “I was given some help from the United States but because the software had to be adapted to the German communications system, there was not much that they could do.”

Yet despite the difficulties facing him, however, he was able to fully establish a working email server within one week.

To access any mail intended for other German institutions, Rotert had to dial up manually and retrieve it from the US. As a result, he had to carry the costs of both sides. However, being the only means of collecting email, “there was no discussion” when it came to payment – the academics who used the server had little choice but to reimburse him. But, at just 25 pfennigs per kilobyte, the lack of attachments and graphics in the early era of email made it affordable for institutions to pay this service fee.

Creating the Domain Name System

Somewhat unsurprisingly, collecting mail for the whole of Germany was a difficult and time-consuming task, which prompted Professor Rotert to organise a dial up link so that mail could then be sent on to the specific institution for which it was intended. It was due to his success in creating the first email server in Germany that he was asked to set up the same software for France in 1985 and for China some years later. By this point, however, the creation of a domain names system made it a lot easier for mail to be sent to specific locations and Professor Rotert revealed that “once (these) communications were stabilised, the email increased dramatically.”

Nonetheless, despite claiming to send around 100 emails per day, he believes that the future of email is bleak. He credits this to the rise in spam mail being sent to email servers, noting that “1 percent of the overall traffic in Germany is email and of that 1 percent, roughly 90 percent is spam.”

This explains why people are becoming increasingly reluctant to use email, according to Professor Rotert. And he added: “There has never been a culture developed on the writing of emails. Consequently, it will be replaced because no one will be upset if it disappears.”

With the rise of social networking sites as a means of sending shorter mail and project management software being used within companies, it is not difficult to see why Professor Rotert believes that the email is dying out.

One thing is certain – sitting at his computer on that day in August 1984, Professor Rotert could never have imagined the impact that email would have on Germany and the rest of the world over the next few decades.