The "it's just not true" article isn't a good one if all it covers is FTP-based; there most certainly were real email systems long before 1978. Like the one I used starting in 1973 (which I see that pkwooster has already mentioned above; we worked at the same company).
In case anyone thinks I could be mistaken about long-ago dates, I still have a 1976 printout of some of my email, and it looks just like the usual email: for each message there are a few header lines (message ID and date/time, From, To list, CC list, Subject), a blank line, and then the body. The only thing that looks strange about it in 2012 is that all the letters are upper case (the online system it ran on gave up lower-case letters in favour of additional special characters), something you will also see if you look at old programming languages such as FORTRAN, BASIC, and COBOL. Back then a lack of mixed case was acceptable because people were used to it in telegraph messages etc., and today we often have the same thing where people don't bother with capitalization in SMS text messages or in instant messaging or chat. (Speaking of which, I first used IM in 1972 or 1973; it's not only email that's old.)
That email system included an API, which I used when I wrote some software that archived emails I wanted to keep, complete with tags (back then we called them "keywords") that I could run searches on. This was one of the first "products" that I ever built, as some 60 people eventually used it.
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