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Sanitized messages: Anthrax threats give new respectability to electronic love letters, invitations.

November 06, 2001

AMONG THE permanent changes of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is this: E-mail has acquired new respectability.

Arbiters of social etiquette may quibble about the correctness of e-mailed invitations or love letters. In the end, though, people make their own choices. And to many, e-mail has become less threatening than opening a handwritten envelope.

The truly remarkable aspect of this monumental lifestyle change is the speed with which it has been adopted.

Until three decades ago, e-mail was just an idea in the head of inventor Ray Tomlinson. He was trying to find new uses for a fledgling Department of Defense computer network that was developed in 1957 as a response to the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik.

In 1844, when Samuel B. Morse sent the first telegram, he knew he was making history. "What had god wrought!" his message read.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell heralded the dawn of the telephone era with a less grand but still legendary summons to his assistant, "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you."

In 1971, Mr. Tomlinson's first experimental e-mails from one computer to another were even more prosaic by comparison. "Most likely the first message was QWERTYOP or something similar," he once recalled, referring to some of the first letters on the keyboard.

"There was no directive to `Go forth and invent e-mail,'" he said. He came up with the concept "mostly because it seemed like a neat idea."

E-mails may be immune to anthrax but they, too, can carry viruses. Such bugs are aimed at the computer, however, not the recipient. Which is a reassuring thought in a world full of dangers. Relatively speaking.

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