With billions of people all over the world sending emails every day, both at work and personally, we tend to take for granted this method of communication and consider email as an inherent part of our modern digital lives. In reality, however, email is a relatively recent luxury.
We have Ray Tomlinson to thank for initiating the incredible new era of communication that we now enjoy – he sent the First email in 1971.
Born in New York, USA, in 1941, Tomlinson attended America’s oldest research university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering at the age of 22. He continued his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and earned himself an S.M. in electrical engineering in 1965.
He started his impressive working career as a computer engineer for Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN Technologies). This was the company hired by the United States Defence Department to build ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) – a government-funded network that connected various research organisations across the country: the forerunner of the internet. Tomlinson played a key part in ARPANET’s development.
But no one asked him to invent email – it was something that Tomlinson was working on as a personal side project to his commissioned work.
Email began as an experiment to see if two computers could exchange a message. The concept of sending another person a message through a computer was not invented by Tomlinson because computer scientists had been exchanging messages on machines for years. Yet these previous forms of electronic communication only allowed people to send messages to other users of the same computer or to numbered mailboxes where the messages had to be printed out.
Tomlinson wanted to send messages to people, not mailboxes, so he decided to modify and combine the programmes that were already out there. The innovative email software he created was called “SNDMSG”.
Speaking to The Verge in 2012, Tomlinson said, “There was no really good way to leave messages for people. The telephone worked up to a point, but someone had to be there to receive the call. And if it wasn’t the person you wanted to get, it was an administrative assistant or an answering service or something. That was the sort of mechanism you had to go through to leave a message, so everyone latched onto the idea that you could leave messages on the computer."
Email was initially seen as a speedy way for ARPANET programmers and researchers to keep in touch – particularly targeted at those who can’t be relied on to answer their phones. But Tomlinson raised the usefulness of computers to such a new level that they soon became accessible for the mass public.
It was Tomlinson who decided to use the now-ubiquitous “@” symbol to separate the recipient’s name from their location – to indicate that the user was “at” some other host rather than being local. As much as the format of emailing has changed over the past 44 years, “user@host” remains the standard for email addresses that we all continue to use today.
Tomlinson sent the first, history-making email to a computer that was in the same room as him so that he could check whether the software worked. Tomlinson has been frequently asked what the first message was and to many people’s disappointment he says, “The test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them.” Nevertheless, he suggests the message was something frustratingly banal for such a ground-breaking moment – something like “QWERTYIOP”.
What Tomlinson didn’t invent was the universally-used term “email” (which is an abbreviation of “electronic mail”). This term wasn’t coined until several years later.
Tomlinson also played a large role in developing the first email standards. He became a co-author of RFC-561 in 1973. This defined several of the email fields we still use today (e.g. From, Subject, and Date).
He was recently inaugurated into the Internet Hall of Fame, alongside such pioneers as Vint Cerf, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Van Jacobson. At the event he spoke to the huge effect of his invention, and said, “I had no notion whatsoever of what the ultimate impact would be.”