A computing legend has died. The inventor of email, Ray Tomlinson, suffered an apparent heart attack on Saturday, according to reports. He was 74 years old.
Tomlinson sent the very first email back in 1971; at the time, he was working in Boston at Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN), a company that was instrumental in the development of a very early version of the internet, called ARPANET. As an employee, he was “looking for problems [ARPANET] could solve,” Tomlinson told The Verge in a 2012 interview.
“IT’S THE ONLY PREPOSITION ON THE KEYBOARD”
Others had thought about sending messages to other users before, and there were some early versions that let you share notes to users on the same computer, but Tomlinson came up with the SNDMSG command. Unlike what came before it, SNDMSG actually sent mail files to the recipient’s computers. It was the first networked messaging program.
He also decided to use the @ symbol to designate a user from its host. The decision lifted the humble symbol from obscurity to international icon — it even entered MOMA’s collection in 2010. The fact it was little-used at the time made it appealing to Tomlinson, as it reduced ambiguity. Also, as he liked to say, “It’s the only preposition on the keyboard.”
Unfortunately for us, the very first email has been lost to time. As he said in an NPRinterview from 2009, they were just random strings of text. “The first e-mail is completely forgettable … and, therefore, forgotten.” Thanks to his invention, Tomlinson won’t be.