Monday 20 November 2017

The man who invented email, Ray Tomlinson, has died aged 74

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The man widely credited as the inventor of the email, Ray Tomlinson, has died aged 74.

The American programmer, who sent what is widely regarded as the first electronic mail and saved the widely-used @ symbol from possible extinction, died of a reported heart attack on Saturday.

In 1971, while working as an engineer at Massachusetts research and development company Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Tomlinson sent a message between two computers on the ARPANET system, a precursor to the internet.

The address system he used involved the @ sign, used to separate a user’s name from its host domain, for an address. Before then the symbol was used mainly for accounting purposes.

Both the system of electronic messages and the @ sign were built on to create modern email.

More than 200 billion emails are now sent a day, and the format is relied on for mass communication at work and in personal lives, with more than 4 billion accounts in existence. Tomlinson contributed to formats such as the email’s subject line as it grew in popularity before the explosion of the web in 1990.

The @ is now used in the usual email template as well as on many other internet services such as Twitter and Instagram, and is common shorthand for “at”.

Tomlinson, born in New York in 1941, was inducted into the internet hall of fame in 2012. Although the first email, sent between two computers ten feet apart in 1971, was the first of trillions, its sender said he couldn’t remember what was sent since most of the test messages he used were nonsense strings of text.

"The test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them. Most likely the first message was QWERTYUIOP or something similar. When I was satisfied that the program seemed to work, I sent a message to the rest of my group explaining how to send messages over the network. The first use of network email announced its own existence," he once said.

As well as its contents, the technology itself could have been discarded if Tomlinson did not continue to work on it after the first message. Jerry Burchfiel, a former colleague, recalled that when he was shown the invention, he told Tomlinson: “Don't tell anyone! This isn't what we're supposed to be working on.”

Vint Cerf, another internet pioneer, tweeted the news of Tomlinson's death, calling it "very sad news".

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