The father of email

Engineer Ray Tomlinson

Engineer Ray Tomlinson sent the first network email in 1971, choosing the '@' symbol to separate the name of the sender from the address of the host computer.

In 1971, in a windowless room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 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.

Tomlinson, a principal engineer at Raytheon BBN Technologies, passed away on March 5, 2016. He was 74 years old.

Inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012 for his invention of modern email, Tomlinson made the historic choice to separate the name of his message's recipient from the name of the host computer using the "@" symbol, creating one of the most universally recognized digital icons on the planet. In 2011, he was ranked No. 4 on the list of the top 150 MIT-related "ideas, inventions and innovators" compiled by The Boston Globe.

"The invention of email came out of a personal desire for a more convenient and functional way to communicate,” Tomlinson said on the occasion of his induction into the Internet Hall of Fame. “Basically, I was looking for a method that did not require the person to be there when the message was sent and enabled the receiver to read and answer communications at their convenience.”

Tomlinson's email program revolutionized communications, fundamentally changing the way people and organizations interact. From global companies to tiny shops, the new communication method transformed business, and people changed how they shop, how they bank and even how they stay in touch with friends and family -- whether across town or on the other side of the world.

"I'm often asked 'Did I know what I was doing?" Tomlinson said at his induction into the Internet Hall of Fame. "The answer is: Yeah. I knew exactly what I was doing. I just had no notion whatsoever about what the ultimate impact would be."

Today, an estimated 2.6 billion people worldwide use email to communicate. They are sending more than 205 billion emails a day, eliminating traditional barriers of time and space.

Tomlinson joined Bolt Beranek and Newman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1967. BBN was acquired by Raytheon Co. in 2009.

His first email traveled only 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 not even Tomlinson could 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, adding that  after dozens of tries, one message came through. “There was nothing momentous about it.”

Published On: 03/07/2016
Last Updated: 01/12/2018