Ray Tomlinson, an American computer programmer, widely considered to be the inventor and godfather of email, passed away on 5 March 2016 from a suspected heart attack. Tomlinson was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame by the Internet Society in 2012. He shared the IEEE Internet Award with Dave Crocker in 2004, and placed fourth in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s list of the top 150 innovators and inventors of the past century. Tomlinson’s work included digital speech synthesis, creating and building on the ARPANET framework, assisting with building and designing the TENEX operating system, and also created CPYNET, a precursor to file transfer systems like FTP and newsgroups.
Although email was a thing as far back as the early 1960s, it wasn’t possible to send email from one user to another on a remote machine. In that era, computers were still massive and also massively expensive pieces of equipment with limited capabilities, and the only way users could send email to each other was through a messaging service on the local machine – which made sense, because anyone signing on to the local server as part of a group could send an email with information about how much of their task had been completed for the next person in the team to read.
In 1971, Tomlinson was working on draft changes to the local messaging system at Bolt, Berenak and Newman (BBN), now known as BBN Technologies, called SNDMSG (literally a shortening of “Send Message”… because really, in the 1970s, no-one had to think up catchy names for their hosted software). Frustrated at the lack of functionality, Tomlinson started work on combining SNDMSG with his experimental file transfer protocol, CPYNET (literally a shortening of… Copy Net!).
He approached the mailbox as it’s own single file instead of a bunch of smaller ones in what was essentially a folder (which you could totally delete at any time if you typed in the wrong thing), gave it a unique name on the server, and modified CPYNET to append new information to the file written by SNDMSG. Instead of SNDMSG being the only place to send and receive email locally, now email could be sent to any server on an ARPANET-type setup, and furthermore any other mail system could possibly incorporate CPYNET into their software to facilitate mail transfer.
Tomlinson’s contributions to email also include the use of the “@” sign in inbox addresses. Because there was no existing use for the @ sign in the TENEX operating system, or in its editors, Tomlinson chose it because it was already in use in financial systems to indicate the exchange rate value for currency, hoping to get people to draw a link to the symbol as an exchange of information between email inboxes. The name preceding it would be the user’s name, while the name inserted after the sign would be the machine the mailbox resided on. The system was designed to be simple to understand and use, and users would need to choose unique names to distinguish their inboxes from one another.
When Tomlinson was finished with the merger between the two systems, he sent himself the worlds first inter-machine email, consisting probably of the letters “QWERTYUIOP”. It was never printed out or preserved, and was discarded on the same day he tested the system. Afterwards, he then sent the world’s first group email to other users on the BBN-hosted SNDMSG system The world’s first email’s existence is only recorded on the BBN server, known as BBN-TENEXB, in scratches on the machine’s keyboard. Not knowing how much his work would change the world, Tomlinson figured that it wasn’t a special occasion.
Though he retired from BBN years later to pursue personal projects, Tomlinson’s work lives on in the company in the form of advanced speech recognition technologies that BBN develops for the military. Tomlinson’s work at BBN was so profound that the company was later the first organisation to receive an Autonomous System Number, which is a network address that helps identify the company’s servers on the internet for the purposes of backbone routing.