"It seemed a good idea" - Meet the man who invented email

Ray Tomlinson gave us email as we know it but got kudos rather than the cash for his world-changing innovation

Ray Tomlinson is the man who you could say invented email as we know it. He didn’t coin the term but he did come up with the @ sign for addressing and much of the furniture that, if you’re reading this, you probably use tens or hundreds of times a day.

Tomlinson created his program back in 1971 while working for Bolt, Beranek and Newman, a technology development company that, under its later name of BBN Technologies, in 2009 became part of defence electronics giant Raytheon. Before Tomlinson, users could message each other on the same computer but after Tomlinson they could do it across host systems, using the ARPANET network that is a precursor to today’s internet. As with many inventions, some people still quibble about details and bragging rights but if anybody can be called the inventor of email, it’s Tomlinson. Is he comfortable with the tag, I ask him over a transatlantic conference call.

“It’s alright as a moniker to put on me as long as you qualify it with ‘networked’,” he says with the resigned but polite familiarity of a man who has been asked the question many times before. “There were certainly solutions [before] but they were not networked.”

Tomlinson says there’s “a direct line” linking his email program and email as we know it today but at the time he only saw the idea as something “useful” for himself and his co-workers. It seemed “a good idea”, he adds, modestly, but in those days when computers were prohibitively expensive and networks smaller in scale.

“You have to remember that the community [for his email program] was 1,000 maybe 2,000 people,” Tomlinson says and it was only in the mid-1990s that he began fielding calls about his work.

If there was no big light-bulb moment (Tomlinson effectively took on a messaging system project and came up with an elegant solution) then there were some odd moments that changed the face of communications.

Of that decision to use the @ symbol, Tomlinson recalls how he narrowed down his options after dispensing with the usual characters used for addressing.

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