Email is one of those incredibly useful communication tools that we all take for granted. It has become so prevalent, for business and for personal use, that we tend to forget there was a time without it.
Over the weekend, the sad news came that the inventor of email, Raymond Tomlinson, died at the age of 74 from a suspected heart attack.
Tomlinson first wrote the computer software in 1971 that enabled short messages to be sent over the ARPANET, a military research network and widely regarded as the precursor to the Internet. Before the advent of email back then, electronic messages were typically only sent between people on the same machine rather than different networks.
According to interviews given by Tomlinson, the first email was a test message, but he said the contents of the message were “entirely forgettable” and he had, as a result, forgotten.
At the time he invented email, Tomlinson was investigating how the ARPANET could be used, and was interested in their mailbox system that allowed users to send a message to numbered mailboxes. The existing system was so basic that someone had to physically print out the message and put it into the appropriate mailbox.
So Tomlinson got to work to make an early kind of file transfer system so that messages could be sent to another computer via the ARPANET.
‘The invention of email came out of a personal desire for a more convenient and functional way to communicate”, said Tomlinson in 2012. “Basically, I was looking for a method that did not require the person to be there when the message was sent and enabled the receiver to read and answer communications at their convenience”.
So what was the great enhancement that he came up with? To use the @ symbol as a way of identifying the user from the host machine, and became so popular that we still use the same method today.
However, Tomlinson also said a couple of years ago that email hasn’t really changed since its inception.
“The early uses were not terribly different from the current uses”, he said. “The exceptions are that there was only plain text in the messages and there was no spam”.
Originally from Amsterdam, New York State, Tomlinson attended the Rennselaer Polytechnic to study electrical engineering, and later earned a masters degree from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
While in Massachusetts, Tomlinson joined a firm called Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), and stayed with the company for his entire working life. BBN later became Raytheon BBN.
“It is with great sadness we acknowledge the passing of our colleague and friend”, Ratheon said of Tomlinson’s death. “A true technology pioneer . . . his work changed the way the world communicates”.