The inventor of email just died, and you probably don

The inventor of email just died, and you probably don't even know his name

A legend in the computing world just passed away. 74-year-old Ray Tomlinson invented something you probably use every day - but you've probably never wondered about it. Tomlinson was the inventor of email, and he suffered a heart attack on Saturday, 5 March in Massachusetts.

Here's what you need to know:

  • Tomlinson was originally from Amsterdam, New York
  • He went to school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and MIT in the 60s. He held electrical engineering degrees from both.

  • He was hired to work at research and development company Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN) in Boston in 1967
  • BBN was responsible for creating an early version of the internet - ARPANET. This was a computer network created for use by the US government.

  • Tomlinson sent the very first email back in 1971. He sent it to himself, having two computers side-by-side
Ray Tomlinson_EMBED

Photo: Dan Murphy

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  • Tomlinson invented the SNDMSG (Send Message) command

  • SNDMSG command is "used to send impromptu messages (messages i.e. not predefined) to the user/system operator/workstation/history log"
  • According to various reports, Tomlinson was just 'fooling around' and wasn't on 'any assignment' at the time. It seemed like a 'neat idea'

  • As significant an invention as it is, Tomlinson does not recollect what was written in the first email
  • He decided to use the @ symbol (ubiquitous with emails nowadays) to differentiate the user from its host.

  • New York's Museum Of Modern Art's Department of Architecture and Design had added the symbol, back in 2010, to its collection
  • Tomlinson was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012 for this very invention

Email had existed in a limited capacity before Tomlinson came around. Previously, electronic messages could be shared by multiple people within a limited framework, meaning that there was no way to send something to a specific person and address.

That all changed with Tomlinson's invention in 1971. It was the first network person-to-person email.

As to why he chose the @ symbol, Tomlinson said, "The primary reason was that it made sense. At signs didn't appear in names so there would be no ambiguity about where the separation between login name and host name occurred.

At the time of the invention, very few people actually had PCs, but Tomlinson's invention was nonetheless significant and he was able to showcase it to enough people. When he was satisfied with the program and it worked fairly well, he announced it to his co-workers, explaining how they could use it as well.

Did he know what he had ended up creating, he was asked when being inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame. "The answer is: yeah I knew exactly what I was doing. I just had no notion whatsoever about what the ultimate impact would be."

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Here, in his own words, is Tomlinson's account:

"I am frequently asked why I chose the at sign, but the at sign just makes sense. The purpose of the at sign (in English) was to indicate a unit price (for example, 10 items @ $1.95). I used the at sign to indicate that the user was "at" some other host rather than being local.

"The first message was sent between two machines that were literally side-by-side. The only physical connection they had (aside from the floor they sat on) was through the ARPANET. I sent a number of test messages to myself from one machine to the other. The test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them. Most likely the first message was QWERTYUIOP or something similar. When I was satisfied that the program seemed to work, I sent a message to the rest of my group explaining how to send messages over the network. The first use of network email announced its own existence."

For a man who made one of the most gamechanging inventions in communications, he lived an almost zen-like life leading up to his death: raising miniature sheep in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Every since news of his death broke out, tributes started to flow in. Among the first? Naturally, Google's Gmail team:

1. Gmail:

2. Vint Cerf (one of the founders of the Internet):

3. A former colleague:

Edited by Payal Puri

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Sahil Bhalla

Sahil Bhalla @IMSahilBhalla