The working life of Ray Tomlinson, inventor of email

Almost every day about 2.5 billion people – about one-third of the world’s population – have a very good reason

Almost every day about 2.5 billion people – about one-third of the world’s population – have a very good reason to thank Ray Tomlinson yet only a handful knows who he was and how his invention revolutionised modern communication.

Tomlinson, 74, died in March. He was the American inventor of email.

After completing his master’s degree in electrical engineering, he joined the technology company of Bolt, Beranek and Newman which was instrumental in the development of a very early version of the internet called ARPANET and, as he recalled in a 2012 interview, he was “looking for problems (ARPANET) could solve.”

Others had thought about sending messages to other users before and there were already some early versions that let you share notes to users on the same computer. However, the big breakthrough came when Tomlinson in 1971 decided to use the @ sign to separate the user name from the name of their machine.

According to the Internet Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 2012, “Tomlinson’s email program brought about a complete revolution, fundamentally changing the way people communicate.”

The first email Tomlinson sent was a test and it has not been preserved. In 2009 he said, “Every time you test you have to generate some sort of message. You might drag your fingers across the keyboard or just type the opening phrase of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address or something else so technically the first email is completely forgettable and therefore forgotten.”

It’s a shame that message has not been remembered unlike the first telephone call made by inventor Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 to his assistant in the next room, “Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you” or the much more impressive first Morse code message sent by inventor Samuel Morse over a line between Washington and Baltimore in May, 1844, “What God hath wrought.”

He decided to use the @ symbol to designate a user from its host and this decision lifted the humble symbol from obscurity to the status of international icon. The fact that it was little used at the time made it more appealing to Tomlinson as it reduced ambiguity and, as he liked to say, “It’s the only preposition on the keyboard”.

Initially, his email messaging system was not considered important – after all, nobody had actually asked for it. He was not obeying any directive from his employer and he said he only pursued its development “because it seemed like a neat idea.”

When he showed it to a colleague he warned, “Don’t tell anyone. This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”

Email has now largely consigned to history earlier electronic messaging systems such as Morse code, Telex and Fax but the @ symbol is not a creation of the computer age. It appeared on the keyboard of typewriters as far back as the 1880s and, as computer keyboards faithfully duplicated these keyboards, @ came along as well.

Originally, it was used for a long time in the sense of “at the price of each” – thus, five oranges @ 50 cents = $2.50 although it had been used for centuries and may be traced back to the 6th and 7th centuries. An American Professor of Latin and palaeography, Berhold Louis Ullman claims in his book, “Ancient Writing and Its Influence” that @ is a ligature, that is, two letters tied together.

Ancient scribes used symbols which were abbreviations as they required fewer pen strokes so @ was an early abbreviation. The Latin preposition “ad” was simplified to something like the @ we know today when the bowl of the “a” and the “d” merged and the upstroke of the “d” was exaggerated and curved to the left.

His discovery was given a perhaps unlikely distinction when the American Museum of Modern Art included @ in its collection in 2010.

And it is only fair that the father of emails should have the last word about what they should actually be called. Tomlinson said in a 2010 interview that they were “emails” and not “e-mails”.

“I’m simply trying to conserve the world’s supply of hyphens,” he quipped.

 How often do you use email?

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