If someone ever chastises you for goofing off at work, you only have to respond with one name: Ray Tomlinson. The American-born computer programmer, who died March 6 of last year at the age of 74, has two primary claims to fame: the first is that he invented the first email program and the second is that he selected the @ symbol used today for email addresses.
So how did Tomlinson come to create these now-indispensable inventions? Was he hard at work on this project after weeks, if not months, of single-minded concentration?
Well, not exactly. Keep reading for the full story…
In 1971, while in the employ of Bolt, Beranek and Newman (later to be known as Raytheon BBN Technologies), Tomlinson invented the practice of sending person-to-person messages to other networked computer users. He chose the @ symbol to separate local from global emails, thus creating a critical convention to network email addresses that exists to this day.
According to industry legend, Tomlinson made little fuss about the innovations he pioneered–in fact, he wanted to keep as low a profile as possible. As Tomlinson’s friend and BBN colleague Jerry Burchfiel recalled in a Forbes profile, “he said, ‘Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on!’” Of course, word eventually got out about and Tomlinson’s e-mail prototype became an essential communications tool soon to be adopted the world over.
Raytheon spokeswoman Joyce Kuzman related a story about the now ubiquitous @ symbol that demonstrates the role serendipity can sometimes play in invention. According to Kuzman, Tomlinson used the @ after looking for a character that would connect the username with the destination address.
“It is a symbol that probably would have gone away if not for email,” she said.
The result of Tomlinson’s seemingly minor, unsanctioned time wasting has been nothing less than a communications revolution. The ways in which people express themselves to one another–to say nothing of the ways in which bosses compose messages to employees, companies communicate with customers, and so on–has been fundamentally changed. Today, millions of Internet-enabled people around the world use email to speak to those miles, time zones or even continents away. And we all have Ray Tomlinson to thank for helping to make the world closer and more connected than in any time in modern human history.
Over the years, Tomlinson had been recognized by the computer science industry for a number of awards and honors (which you can read more about here). At the time of his death, he had been working for Raytheon, headquartered in Cambridge, MA, while living nearby in Lincoln. The impact of Tomlinson’s passing was best summarized, appropriately enough, by a tweet from the email service giant Gmail: