What is e-mail?

People can use the Internet to send electronic mail, known as e-mail, to one another in just a few seconds. Once you type a message into your computer to send to your cousin, let’s say, who lives miles from you across the country, it travels through the wires of your phone line as a series of electrical signals (or, for some people, the signals travel through the same cables that bring them cable television).

These signals travel to a station run by your service provider, where a big computer sends them to an Internet routing center. Located all over the world, routing centers, which are linked to organizations and Internet providers, send the countless computer communications that come to them each second along the quickest possible routes to their destinations. A giant computer there reads the address on your e-mail and sends it farther: depending on the distance it must travel, it may continue along phone lines, be changed into light signals that can travel with great speed along thin glass strands called fiber-optic cables, or be converted into equally speedy invisible bands of energy known as radio waves and transmitted to a communications satellite that will bounce it back to Earth, to a ground station located close to where your cousin lives. Once your message reaches the routing center nearest your cousin, it will be sent to the station of his or her service provider. From there it will be sent along regular phone lines to his or her computer. And all of this happens in a matter of moments.


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