The Legacy of the Inventor of Email
Remembering Ray Tomlinson
This past month the inventor of email passed away. Ray Tomlinson died on March 5th but the legacy of his brilliance continues to shape popular communications. According to the Radicati Group, 100 billion emails are sent and received each day in the United States. That volume is up significantly from prior years and is projected to continue to increase into the foreseeable future.
While many of us have to deal with tremendous volumes of email (and spam) each day, it is remarkable that the innovation has universally been credited to one man. Specifically, Ray Tomlinson built the Arpanet and Telnet protocols (major achievements by themselves) but then wrote the first application to utilize Arpanet. He combined SNDMSG and CYPNET to create modern email. In fact, he actually was the one who decided that the now ubiquitous “@” sign would be used in the ‘user@host’ convention.
MIT celebrated their 150th anniversary in 2011 by naming the top 150 innovators and ideas that came from MIT. Ray Tomlinson placed 4th on that illustrious list that included Tim Berners-Lee as number one (world wide web), Eric Lander as number two (sequencing 1/3 of the human genome) and William Shockley as number three (solid state transistor). Tomlinson started his career in an IBM Internship before getting his graduate degree from MIT. In 1967 he went to work for Bolt Beranek and Newman (later known as Raytheon BBN Technology).
The fact that one man could elevate the humble “@” sign from obscurity to global fame is certainly interesting. A rags-to-riches story for a keystroke that typically requires a shift key to enable the alternate character set in order to even be accessed. Mr. Tomlinson gave the @ sign credit by saying: “it is the only preposition on the keyboard.” NPR interviewed Tomlinson in 2009 and asked him what was written in that very first email that was sent. He said that it was completely forgettable as it was a string of random characters. We suspect that it is quite possible that you see a few of your emails each day in that same completely forgettable category. But imagine if there were no email at all for just one day and the global business impact that would create. Ray Tomlinson had a major impact on our lives.
Chief Technology Officer