Obituary: Ray Tomlinson
US technology pioneer who invented email and adopted the @ symbol
Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30
Ray Tomlinson, who died on March 5 aged 74, was a computer programmer generally credited as the man who invented the email, transforming the way we communicate and socialise.
The first electronic messaging system, developed in the 1960s, would only allow messages to be exchanged between users on the same computer. In the late 1960s, however, the American Defence Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency launched the Arpanet, a program designed to create a network tying together disparate computer science programs it was funding around the country. This is now considered the precursor to the internet.
In 1971 Tomlinson was working at the Boston-based technology company Bolt, Beranek and Newman, a major contractor on the Arpanet, trying, in his own words "to find things to use this new-fangled network for". He had heard about a proposal to send messages to be printed with a printer and stuffed away in mail boxes for people to read and had the idea that messages should go to computers instead: "I thought about it for a bit and then decided to put together a system that might do that."
Borrowing a code from a file-transfer program he had created called Cpynet, Tomlinson modified an existing internal computer messaging program so that messages could be sent between two machines that were side-by-side on his desk. When he wrote the program, he needed to find a punctuation symbol to separate the name of the recipient from their computer location. He chose the symbol "@" (known as the asperand), the least used sign, and the only preposition, on the keyboard.
At first, Tomlinson did not consider his email messaging system to be significant. "Don't tell anyone! This isn't what we're supposed to be working on," he told a colleague. Yet email quickly matured from a fun idea to a central feature of the Arpanet - and later the internet.
"I'm often asked 'Did I know what I was doing?'" Tomlinson said when he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012. "The answer is: Yeah, I knew exactly what I was doing. I just had no notion whatsoever about what the ultimate impact would be."
History, sadly, does not record the content of the first ever email message, Tomlinson describing it as "insignificant, something like 'QWERTYUIOP'".
Raymond Samuel Tomlinson was born in Amsterdam, New York, on April 23, 1941, and brought up in Vail Mills. From Broadalbin Central School, he took a degree in electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, followed by a master's degree at MIT, where he developed an analogue-digital hybrid speech synthesiser.
In 1967 he joined Bolt, Beranek and Newman (now Raytheon), where he continued to work until his death.
He did not become rich from his invention, confessing that he had often wondered what fraction of a cent per @ sign it would take to make him very comfortably off: "It's a very small fraction."
Described by a friend as "surprisingly, not addicted to email", Tomlinson lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where he and his partner Karen raised miniature sheep.
She survives him with two daughters from an earlier marriage.