Ray Tomlinson, a man everyone involved in email marketing owes a debt to, died on 5 March aged 74. He was part of the revolution that was email, taking it from a purely internal system to its present, superlative-testing tool that the world depends on.
Ray’s contribution was small but tremendously significant. He wrote the code for sending the first networked email over the internet, or what passed for it in 1971. To the casual observer the occasion might not have seemed as anything special. There were two computers, side by side, on a table. Ray sat at one and typed a message which appeared on the other computer. The content of the message was so forgetful, according to Ray himself, that everyone has forgotten it.
Most of us would have been underwhelmed had we been there, yet it was the start of a revolution. The computers were not connected to the same mainframe. They were networked. The difference was the important thing.
In essence, Ray Tomlinson invented the basis of email marketing.
He was a nerd, working to develop internet systems because it seemed, according to him, “a neat idea”. He had the mind-set of many, but by no means all, of his contemporaries in that he made no money from his invention. Just taking the system further was, he has suggested, reward enough.
That he was the first to use the @ sign as the connector between the addressee and the domain, so allowing an email to be received by a specific person, is interesting but not his major contribution.
Ray reckoned that email grew slowly but organically and it wasn’t until 1993 that he realised the importance of what he’d created. He said that the early uses were not terribly different from the current ones, the exceptions being a lack of SPAM, but its current preponderance indicates the effectiveness of his invention.
Next time you click the button which sends your marketing email to thousands of recipients, give a thought to Ray, the chap who was instrumental in making it possible. His eulogy should state that he changed the way the world communicates. I get the feeling he’d think that rather neat.