The history of eCommerce - part 1

The history of eCommerce - part 1

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Now we think of eCommerce purely in terms of sales made through the internet, but actually Electronic Commerce has a much wider scope.  Britannnica defines it as:

"maintaining relationships and conducting business transactions that include selling information, services, and goods by means of computer telecommunications networks" -

Today we start a new series where we look at the history of eCommerce, from it's earliest origins to modern times.  We go all the way back to 1910 (believe it or not) to see it being used even then, and follow it's evolution through to modern times.

This is the first post so today we'll be looking at the earliest examples of eCommerce in use, up to the start of the modern era when commercial use of the internet started.

Florists' Telegraph Delivery

You might be wondering how eCommerce could have existed as far back as 1910, but even then, there was a form of electronic communication called the telegraph.  The telegraph was actually first invented in the 1830's and 40's by Samuel Morse and other inventors.  Telegraph communication used what would become known as Morse code, and even today most people know a bit of Morse code - the "dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot" SOS signal.

On August 10th 1910, thirteen US florists led by John Valentine founded Florists' Telegraph Delivery.  This was a group where the florists agreed to serve each others out of town flower orders, and still exists today as Interflora here in the UK.  Orders were exchanged electronically via telegraph, and this is likely to be the first example of eCommerce where business was conducted electronically.

Berlin Blockade

After WWII, from 1948 to 1949, the Soviet Union began a blockade of all rail, road, and water communications between Berlin and the West.  In response the US and UK began to supply the city with food and other vital supplies by air.  This carries on for the next 13 months with the primary form of ordering being via telex.

Over this time more than 2 million tons of food and other supplies were flown into Berlin, all of which had to be loaded and unloaded as quickly as possible, and the sheer volume meant that logistically it was virtually impossible with the existing stock management methods.

To solve the problem, U.S. Army Master Sgt. Edward A. Guilbert and other logistics officers created a standard manifest system that could be transmitted by telex, and this allowed thousands of tons of cargo to be tracked properly until roads to Berlin were re-opened in 1949.

Guilbert continued to use standard manifests in the 1960's when he worked for Du Pont Co. where it was used to send cargo information between Du Pont and their carriers.


By 1968, there were so many companies who shipped by rail, air, road and sea using electronic manifests, they formed the Transportation Data Coordinating Committee (TDCC).  It's purpose was to standardise electronic manifests across different industries, and in 1975 the TDCC published its first electronic data interchange (EDI) specifications.

The grocery and food industry piloted an EDI project in 1977, and by the early 80's many companies like Ford, General Motors, Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Kmart required their suppliers to use EDI. 

EDI disadvantages

While EDI was convenient, and saved large customers money by removing paperwork, it was expensive for suppliers.  You needed expensive software and no two customers used exactly the same subset of EDI standards.  But for the supplier it basically boiled down to, no EDI, no order.

Starting the modern age

By 1991, thousands of businesses were using EDI, but it was all about to change because this was the year restrictions on commercial use of the internet were lifted, and the year Tim Berners-Lee created the first browser called WorldWideWeb.

In 1994, the Netscape Navigator browser was released, and added support for cookies.  The inclusion of cookies meant that you could now identify, and collect data about individual users, opening the door to the start of online selling as we know it today.


Thanks for reading part one of this series looking at the earliest history of eCommerce.  In part two we'll be looking at the start, and evolution of the modern era of eCommerce from the earliest days of the internet, and the introduction of brands that are still well known today like Amazon.

See you next week!

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