One of the great unsung heroes of the Internet passed away on Saturday at the age of 74.
You may not know Ray Tomlinson’s name, but if you’ve ever used the Internet, you’re certainly familiar with his work. Tomlinson, who died of a heart attack, may not have been the first person to dream up the concept of sending direct electronic communiqués, but the SNDMSG command he developed in 1971 was the first real online system for delivering messages from one computer user to another.
Tomlinson didn’t just invent email. His decision to use a rarely used symbol, the “@” sign, to visibly separate the user from the host machine in a email address also lifted that character into our everyday lexicon.
In honor of Tomlinson’s contribution to the way billions of people around the world communicate, please email this story to someone you love. Or email them a link to this animated GIF of two adorable kittens hugging. Or just email them a couple sentences saying you’re thinking about them. Regardless of what you say, or to whom you say it, Tomlinson’s legacy will be an indelible part of your doing so.
Tomlinson developed email as a recent MIT grad while he was working at the Advanced Research Agency Network (ARPANET), a Pentagon-funded computer network that would evolve into the modern Internet. While his main project was a time-sharing program called TENEX, along the way Tomlinson noticed a major problem with online messaging: it was way too complicated and unwieldy.
As he wrote in a blog post:
I was making improvements to the local inter-user mail program called SNDMSG. Single-computer electronic mail had existed since at least the early 1960’s and SNDMSG was an example of that. SNDMSG allowed a user to compose, address, and send a message to other users’ mailboxes.
A mailbox was simply a file with a particular name. It’s only special property was its protection which only allowed other users to append to the file. That is, they could write more material onto the end of the mailbox, but they couldn’t read or overwrite what was already there. 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 at sign and the host name to the user’s (login) name. I am frequently asked why I chose the at sign, but the at sign just makes sense. The purpose of the at sign (in English) was to indicate a unit price (for example, 10 items @ $1.95). I used the at sign to indicate that the user was “at” some other host rather than being local.
The first email was sent between computers that were literally right next to each other and, from what Tomlinson recalls, consisted of complete gibberish. He just wanted to check if it worked.
The system eventually took off, with government and military organizations adopting it in the 1980s—when tech-savvy users could start leaving messages for each other—and mass public adoption coming in the 1990s. Tomlinson was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012.
“I see email being used, by and large, exactly the way I envisioned,” Tomlinson told The Verge in an interview. “In particular, it’s not strictly a work tool or strictly a personal thing. Everybody uses it in different ways, but they use it in a way they find works for them.”
Seriously, did you send that email yet? Your mother would love to hear from you.
H/T The Verge | Illustration by Max Fleishman