The past month has been one of reflection for the technology community, as it paid its respects to the man credited with inventing email, Raymond Tomlinson, who has died aged 74.
This pioneering computer scientist, labelled by some as ‘the Godfather of Email’, reportedly suffered a heart attack at his home in the US at the start of March.
Cult hero kept his discovery secret from bosses
Tomlinson was a major cult hero for technology professionals and users the world over, and understandably so. In 1971, he wrote and sent the first ever person-to-person email message, while working as a programmer for Bolt, Beranek and Newman (now Raytheon BBN Technologies).
It wasn’t, however, a strictly professional project, with the young MIT graduate reportedly making the world-changing breakthrough in secret, for fear of upsetting his employer. Raytheon spokeswoman Joyce Kuzman said “It wasn’t an assignment at all, he was just fooling around; he was looking for something to do with [internet precursor] ARPANET.”
With an average of 205 billion emails sent per day in 2015, it’s fair to say the invention has changed the world. It’s revolutionised human communication, not only impacting people’s personal relationships but allowing businesses to flourish across countries, continents and beyond.
The choice of the ‘@’ symbol
Perhaps more to blame for his cult status, though, was Tomlinson’s decision to use the ‘at’ symbol – ‘@’. Known originally as an accounting abbreviation, it went on to become not only an essential element of 4.5 billion email addresses, but also a symbol of the technological revolution in general.
Speaking about his choice in a 2012 interview, the Massachusetts native said “I was mostly looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much, and there weren’t a lot of options.
“I could have used an equal sign, but that wouldn’t have made much sense.”
Tomlinson continued to work for Raytheon BBN Technologies until his passing. The company’s director of public relations, Mike Doble, paid tribute: “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.”