“It seemed a good idea” - Meet the man who invented email
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.
“I looked at the keyboard and there were a lot of numerals and letters that were pretty much out of the picture and a lot of the punctuation was used in one way or the other. The @ sign was the only preposition on the keyboard - it really popped out.”
Tomlinson lifted the humble @ from obscurity and created a communications medium that is as ubiquitous today as birdsong and the ticking of clocks. But it didn’t make him rich and he never considered patenting his idea.
“I’m not sure you could have patented it at the time,” he says. “It would not have been a popular thing. Now, everything gets patented.”
Indeed, and if email were invented today, patent trolls, lawyers, suits and countersuits would doubtless proliferate. It’s a world very different from the “standing on the shoulders of giants” principles and shared efforts that were once more common in the fledgling computer world.
“Well, I don’t get discouraged easily but I do find it a little troubling,” says Tomlinson when asked about that change.
Instead the rewards of this work have been softer yet more noble than filthy lucre. His niece being able to say “Hey, that’s my uncle!” in a school lesson, for example, or recognition by various awards committees and a place in the Internet Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, with whom Tomlinson once enjoyed chatting on a plane journey. (By coincidence, these two totemic figures once lived in the same town.)
“It’s very gratifying. I’m particularly proud of the way [email] has made people able to communicate in a way they would not have been able to.”
Tomlinson did once attempt to calculate what he might have got if he had a financial cut of every email message sent but gave it up. Instead though, he is able to recall receiving thanks from a research librarian who had used email to contact a support group that helped her cope with an ill relative. Some things have more value than cash in the bank…
Email has been transformative but of course it has also had its share of spammers and scammers.
“It might have been a good thing to have considered the ways in which it could have been misused but in this small community the idea of misusing it would have been stomped on so quickly that it wouldn’t arise,” Tomlinson says.
Could there have been any inbuilt protection?
“Yeah, maybe, but they may have used some other vector to carry their viruses, worms and malware.”
Tomlinson says he doesn’t have a Facebook account, has “never quite figured out” the appeal of Twitter and has “mostly ignored” the rise of IM, WhatsApp, Snapchat and other communication types that today supplement email but in no way have supplanted it.
Innovation today tends to be a rat-a-tat-tat affair with gimmicks heralded as the Second Coming and trends passing in matters of weeks and months and everyone has access to powerful tools.
“It’s easy to be an innovator these days,” Tomlinson says, lamenting overly complicated computer apps and the difficulty in performing tasks when it’s hard to discover the “little gizmo to make it happen” within programs.
Today, remarkably, Tomlinson remains a Raytheon employee, albeit as a part-timer. He’s also raising an Ouessant breed of sheep that hails from Brittany in northern France. The day he sent the first of trillions of email messages is almost 44 years ago but he’s not one to shout it from the rooftops. “I don’t mind talking about it so long as it’s not too often,” he says.