Last Updated: 02/27/2013*

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Ray Tomlinson's Message Put “@” on the Map, Revolutionized Communications

It was 1971, and in a windowless room in Cambridge, Mass., a bearded computer scientist named Ray Tomlinson was hunched before two massive computers, struggling to send the world’s first email.

He had been programming and debugging for hours, trying fruitlessly to get a message from one cabinet-sized computer to another.

Now he tried again, banging out his name on a teletype keyboard: TOMLINSON. He followed that with an @ symbol — a little-used key he had chosen as a separator — and then the name of the other computer.

Tomlinson rolled his chair over to the second computer’s teletype and banged out TYPE MAILBOX on the keyboard.

For a moment there was silence. And then with a rattle, the teletype came alive. History’s first email had arrived.

“The mail was sitting there just like it is today when you check your inbox,” Tomlinson said.

Computers used in sending of first email in 1971 by Ray_Tomlinson

In late 1971 Ray Tomlinson sent the first Internet email from the computer BBN-TENEXB, shown in the background of this photo, to BBN-TENEXA, in the foreground. The message was entered on a teletype on one computer and printed at the other. (Photo credit: Dan Murphy)


Internet Hall of Fame Induction

The Internet Society commemorated that achievement by inducting Tomlinson, now 71 and an engineer for Raytheon, into the Internet Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland. He joined 32 other Internet luminaries in the Hall of Fame’s first class.

Forty-one years after Tomlinson’s first message, some 300 billion emails are sent daily, each of them using the “@” address format he invented.

At the time Tomlinson was a 30-year-old computer scientist at Bolt, Beranek and Newman, which later became Raytheon BBN Technologies. He and other BBN engineers helped write the Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP, the core software used to send information through the Internet.

On Monday the Internet Society inducted Tomlinson into the Internet Hall of Fame.
Raytheon engineer Ray Tomlinson was inducted into the Internet Society's Internet Hall of Fame.

Tomlinson’s first email only traveled 100 yards – from a computer known as BBN-TENEXB to a router elsewhere in the building, then back to the second computer, BBN-TENEXA. But it was the first time a message had traveled between completely different computers on the ARPANET, the predecessor of the  Internet.

The achievement seemed so routine that no one, not even Tomlinson, can remember the exact day it happened, or even the content of the message.

“Every time I tested I typed in something — `testing 123’ or something innocuous like that — and then I would send it and see what happened,” Tomlinson said.  After dozens of tries, he said, one message came through.

“There was nothing momentous about it,” Tomlinson said.

A few days later Tomlinson sent the first lengthy email: a memo to other workers at BBN on how to use the @ symbol to send emails outside the company. There was only one problem: other than BBN, nobody else had the software to receive them yet.

“It was kind of like the sound of one hand clapping,” Tomlinson said. “There was nobody to talk to out there.”

Tomlinson has since worked on dozens of other projects, from wearable computers for soldiers to training software for Navy sailors. He now works on Raytheon software that the military uses to plan the movement of supplies around the world.

But Tomlinson remains most famous for email and rescuing the @ sign from obscurity, and he cheerfully signs his name as R@y when asked for autographs. Monday’s honor stands out because it comes from peers who are writing the standards for tomorrow’s Internet, he said.

“The Internet Society is the center of the Internet’s development,” Tomlinson said. “So I’m particularly proud of the fact that they are seeing fit to establish this Hall of Fame and have chosen me as one of their initial members.”
 

* A version of this story was posted in April 2012.

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