If you’re like most people who work in an office or use a computer regularly, you send and receive dozens of emails each day. When you click Send, how does it get to the right place?

Email was born in 1971 when a computer engineer began using the @ symbol to designate which computer a message should go to. At its core, an email is simply a text message from one user to another. Advancing technology has added extra features along the way, of course—like image and file attachments, links and embedded maps.

When you send and receive email, you use an email client which allows you to create and interact with emails from other computer users. Your email client can be web-based, meaning you check it through your web browser (examples include Hotmail, Gmail, or Yahoo Mail) or it can be an application on your computer (like Outlook, Thunderbird or Mail).

Here’s a basic explanation of how email works:

  1. The sender composes a message using the email client on their computer.
  2. When the user sends the message, the email text and attachments are uploaded to the SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) server as outgoing mail.
  3. All outgoing messages wait in the outgoing mail queue while the SMTP server communicates with the DNS (Domain Name Server–like a phone book for domain names and server IP addresses) to find out where the recipient’s email server is located. If the SMTP server finds the recipient’s email server,  it will transfer the message and attachments. If the recipient’s server can’t be found, the sender will get a “Mail Failure” notification in their inbox.
  4. The next time the recipient clicks “Send & Receive,” their email client will download all new messages from their own email server. You’ve got mail!