RIP Ray Tomlinson, thanks for the @ symbol

One of the pioneers of email has passed away, but you've probably never heard of him.

Meryl D'Souza March 10, 2016

I was about nine when I created my first Yahoo email account. All the cool kids at school had one and I needed mine to have a bit of 'personality'.

So I went ahead and called it meryl_game@yahoo.com. The 'game' was not because I was huge fan of video games, it was because I was a WWE fanatic. At the time, Triple H aka The Game was a big deal and I wanted to be like him. Yes, it was stupid, but it had a bit of me in there. 

We all had horrific first email addresses. I recently tracked down my mum’s first email. It reads like a prostitute’s email address; it’s her name followed by foryou@hotmail.com. But that’s the thing with emails. Even with a fake name, they feel friendly and unpretentious. 

Raymond Tomlinson did not invent email. In fact, emails do not have just one inventor, they’re the product of multiple improvements on a basic messaging system. But Tomlinson is credited by many for pioneering the version of email that has become an everyday part of life. And with it, a keyboard symbol that we all take for granted. 

When Tomlinson was a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), two programmers from the same institution wanted to send each other electronic messages. To do that, Tom Van Vleck and Noel Morris created the email program MAIL. 

It was an embryonic version of the email. Its major limitation was that it was only possible for users within MIT to exchange messages. They couldn’t send messages to colleagues at Stanford or Caltech. This is where Tomlinson’s foresight and genius changed the digital world.

In the 1960s and '70s, Tomlinson worked for his first and only employer, high-technology company Bolt, Beranek and Newman (now BBN Technologies), on a project for The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) - a research network funded by the US Department of Defence that later gave birth to the internet. 

At the time, his company had developed a messaging program called Sndmsg that was similar to the one at MIT. It allowed multiple users of a time-share computer to send messages to one another. But it was a closed system, limited to users of a single computer. 

“Mr. Tomlinson, filching code from a file-transfer program he had created called Cpynet, modified Sndmsg so that messages could be sent from one host computer to another throughout the Arpanet system,” William Grimes wrote in his obituary to Tomlinson, published in The New York Times.

He did that in 1979 by using the @ symbol to isolate a user name from a destination address. He chose the @ sign because it did not appear in user names and did not have any meaning in the TENEX paging program used on time-sharing computers. 

He probably had no idea at the time how big and important the @ symbol would become. Today it is a representative mark of all things digital and is no longer limited to just emails. It's taken over social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter - they all use the symbol to give users an identity. The @ symbol has made social media personal. 

Speaking to journalist Adrienne Lafrance late last year, Tomlinson said: “I am amused when somebody tries to illustrate the first email using a modern keyboard and a finger reaching for the ‘2’ key. Wrong key! The @ was on the ‘P’ key.”

To give this milestone in modern technology some perspective, in 1971 (before Tomlinson invented his form of email), programmer Dick Watson of the research company SRI (previously Stanford Research Institute) had proposed a form of email where messages would be sent to numbered mailboxes. 

That didn’t take off and you should be glad. Imagine being in a world where you’re identified by your number. We’d be no different than products with barcodes, sitting on a supermarket shelf. 

There is certainly a debate as to who really created the email, and while Tomlinson wasn't the very first guy to do so, he certainly did elevate the original format into something closer to what we use today. 

However, what he certainly can be credited for is something much more than that. By forging the @ symbol he gave each of us a digital identity. He made the internet, at times a deep and dark place, a little more friendly. And for that Ray, we thank you. 

Ray Tomlinson died on Saturday, 5th March, 2016. He was 74. He was a principal scientist at BBN Technologies, one of the research arms of Raytheon. On the news of his death, the company released the following message:

It is with great sadness we acknowledge the passing of our colleague and friend, Ray Tomlinson. A true technology pioneer, Ray was the man who brought us email in the early days of networked computers. His work changed the way the world communicates and yet, for all his accomplishments, he remained humble, kind and generous with his time and talents. He will be missed by one and all.