Email Pioneer Ray Tomlinson Dies

The sad news on 5th March for those familiar with the history of the Internet was of the death of the email pioneer Ray Tomlinson aged 74.

It is worth pondering for a moment just some of the ways in which the invention and widescale facilitation of the use of email has revolutionised how we are able to communicate with each other in terms of:

  • Scope – text and attachments (of many different kinds).
  • Scale – multiple recipients at once.
  • Speed – (almost) instantaneous wherever the recipient is in the world.
  • Cost – the huge cost savings compared to ‘snail mail’ for example.
  • Convenience – we can send emails from wherever we have an Internet connection, from our desktop at home to our multiple mobile devices.

According to radicati.com around 200 billion emails are sent every day, and although Ray Tomlinson did not actually invent electronic mail, he was the person who was able to transmit the first message between terminals attached to separate CPUs (central processing units).

Although Mr Tomlinson had not specifically been asked to create such a system, the fact that he did so and therefore affected so many lives since the later 20th century makes his contribution to our home and work lives incredibly important and significant.

Early ‘Forgettable’ Efforts

The first emails sent by Mr Tomlinson in late 1971 were of course sent by himself to himself on computers that were side by side connected by the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (Arpanet). This was the early version of today’s Internet, and as such was the first packet switching network that used the protocol suite TCP/IP.

Mr Tomlinson’s own comment about the content of the very first emails that he sent in this way was that it was “entirely forgettable” but most likely to have been “QWERTYUIOP or something similar”.

The @ Symbol

For many people, aside from the simple genius of the email system itself, a talking point has been the introduction of the @ symbol to popular language. Whereas the ‘at’ symbol had previously been used in the Spanish and Portuguese languages to abbreviate a indicate a unit of weight of 11 kg (an “arroba”) and in English to indicate a quantity of things at a particular price e.g. 5 things @ £2 each, Tomlinson’s use was or course different. He used it to indicate that a user was “at” some other host rather than being local i.e. it was used to separate a user’s login name from the host computer’s name.

What Does This Mean For Businesses?

Although many of us have used Web / WiFi based communications system such as Skype, instant messaging, Snapchat, Facetime, Facebook messages and posts, Twitter Tweets, and systems like Slack (instant internal messaging), e-mail is an enduring and still vitally important aspect of most businesses.

Our email is a familiar base. It’s a filing and storage system as well as a communication method. It is an ideal medium for business that now has the same clout and significance that handwritten communication had before it. It may have had its challenges (reducing junk mail and spam) but all the signs are that the system that Ray Tomlinson developed isn’t going anywhere soon.