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IT Industry Mourns Death of E-Mail Inventor Ray Tomlinson

The sender of the first e-mail between two different computers, Raymond Tomlinson, died over the weekend. Tomlinson famously chose the "@" sign followed by a computer hostname appended to a user name as the syntax for how messages should connect with one another.

"It is with great sadness we acknowledge the passing of our colleague and friend, Ray Tomlinson, read a Raytheon statement. "A true technology pioneer, Ray was the man who brought us e-mail 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."

Tomlinson was an engineer at Bolt, Bermek and Newman, a government contractor now a part of Raytheon. He was part of a team working on software to create and upgrade the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPAnet), which was the first to run TCP/IP and became the basis of what is today's Internet.

Until he created the ability to send e-mails from one person to another, e-mails could only be sent to one another on the same computer. Tomlinson was working on improving an inter-user e-mail program called SNDMSG but like others "a mailbox was simply a file with a particular name," according to a Raytheon document Tomlinson authored. In that document he explained the idea of sending a message from one person on one computer to someone else on another by improving SNDMSG and incorporating code from CPYNET, then an experimental file transfer protocol, initially over ARPAnet. Here's how it happened, in his words:

The idea occurred to me that CPYNET could append material to a mailbox file just as readily as SNDMSG could.  SNDMSG could easily incorporate the code from CPYNET and direct messages through a network connection to remote mailboxes in addition to appending messages to local mailbox files. The missing piece was that the experimental CPYNET protocol had no provision for appending to a file; it could just send and receive files. Adding the missing piece was a no-brainer -- just a minor addition to the protocol.  I don't recall the protocol details, but appending to a file was the same as writing to a file except for the mode in which the file was opened. Next, the CPYNET code was incorporated into SNDMSG.  It remained to provide a way to distinguish local mail from network mail.  I chose to append an @ sign and the host name to the user's (login) name.  The @ sign seemed to make sense.  The purpose of the @ sign (in English) was to indicate a unit price (for example, 10 items @ $1.95).  I used the @ sign to indicate that the user was "at" some other host rather than being local.

The two messages first sent in 1971 involved two computers side-by-side connected via ARPAnet, he recalled.

Luminaries throughout the tech industry shared their condolences. "Very sad news," tweeted Internet pioneer Vint Cerf. And Google's Gmail team tweeted:  "Thank you, Ray Tomlinson, for inventing email and putting the @ sign on the map."

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

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 03/07/2016 at 1:47 PM


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