There are many claimants to various aspects of the Internet. What most agree on though is that it is the product of many contributors, each initiative depending on previous ones, and so on. Every now and again there was a substantial change that moved the Internet forward massively, and Ray Tomlinson, who died on 5 May 2016 aged 74, will be remembered as the inventor of one of the most significant systems on the Internet: networked email.
Whilst it is not true, as some have suggested, that without him we would not have email marketing, no one can argue that the process would have been delayed or, worse still, a less effective system might have resulted.
The majority of people alive today weren’t born in 1971 when he sent the first networked email and it must be difficult to appreciate the revolution he generated. One of his co-workers made a rather astute joke, suggesting that they should get the OK from the US Post Office. Not the greatest belly laugh, but it shows that they were aware of the impact their system would make on what we call snail mail.
Imagine having to pay the price of a first class stamp for every person on your email marketing list. Don’t forget to include the physical requirement of having to stuff envelopes with literature, which also would have to be paid for. We owe Ray something of a debt.
He did not invent email. Computers physically connected to a mainframe could receive messages from others similarly connected but this was hardly cutting edge. His innovation was to come up with the software that enabled networked email, even sending the very first one.
It is rather a shame that he couldn’t remember what was on that first email. He probably read it twice as the receiving computer was placed on the same table as the one which sent the email. But we all know that it wasn’t distance that mattered so much as separation from the mainframe.
When asked why he did it, he replied, “It seemed a neat idea.” If only everything I’ve done because it seemed a good idea at the time had turned out so well. Rather oddly, the thing quoted in most eulogies is that he ‘invented’ the @ sign, the separator between the host and the specified person. It is a minor, if rather apparent, particular, although an inspired choice.
Tomlinson suggested that it made sense to him as it was the only preposition on the keyboard. It is obvious now to all of us but to choose it back in 1971 shows how shrewd he was. It is everywhere nowadays of course, its presence hardly limited to email, but in those days it was hardly ever used, and its presence on the ‘standard’ English keyboard was illogical.
He was an internet pioneer of the old school, making no money from his contribution, but is rated as number four in the top 150 Internet Hall of Fame. So the next time you tap the @ key, give Ray, a computer giant, a thought. And a big thank-you.