Ray Tomlinson.jpgAll of us owe Ray Tomlinson a huge debt of gratitude.

On Monday, March 7, 2016, media outlets around the world reported his death at the age of 74 two days earlier.

By inventing email when he was supposed to have been working on something else, he revolutionised the way we all — young and old — communicate with each other.

About the only time we send written communication by post now is at Christmas and a few other occasions. Stamped, posted letters are largely a thing of the past, even when conducting business.

What can compete with the immediacy of the email, to which can be attached documents, photographs, spreadsheets and slide packs?

Tomlinson was still working for his longtime employer, Raytheon, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he died. He lived west of Boston in picturesque Lincoln, where he raised miniature sheep in his spare time.

He won many plaudits and awards during his lifetime. The most recent was an award from the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012. In his acceptance speech, he said he knew what he was doing but had no idea how significant it would be:

I’m often asked: did I know what I was doing? And the answer is, yes, I knew exactly what I was doing. I just had no notion whatsoever of the ultimate impact. What I was doing was providing a way for people to communicate with other people.

When he invented email for what is now Raytheon in 1971, he used the ‘@’ symbol, because it intuitively made sense to him. It was a bookkeeping symbol often used in pricing units, e.g. 10 @ £1.25, where ‘@’ meant ‘at’. V3.co.uk explains (emphases mine):

Tomlinson is said to have chosen it because it was doing nothing and its original meaning of ‘at the rate of’ was transferable to ‘at the server’.

Raymond Samuel Tomlinson was born in Amsterdam, New York, on April 23, 1941. His family moved to Vail Mills, a small community, and he attended Broadalbin Central School in nearby Broadalbin. Afterwards, he attended the prestigious Rensselear Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and having taken several IBM courses graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1963. From there he studied at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Cambridge, where he continued his studies. His Masters thesis in 1965 involved the development of an analogue-digital hybrid speech synthesiser.

In 1967, Cambridge-based Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) hired him. The company is now called Raytheon BBN Technologies.

He worked in research and development on ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. He helped to develop ARPANET’s operating system and file transfer program.

He then worked on modifying the system’s SNDMSG program to enable communication from one computer to another. That was not part of his assignment, and when he succeeded in sending the very first email, told a colleague:

Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.

The first email was sent between side-by-side computers. Tomlinson said he had long forgotten his test messages, which might have included QWERTYUIOP, the top row of letters on a keyboard.

Raytheon spokeswoman Joyce Kuzman said that Tomlinson developed email so that something could be done with ARPANET.

As to whether the spelling of ’email’ should have a hyphen, Tomlinson jovially explained why he preferred leaving it out:

I’m simply trying to conserve the world’s supply of hyphens.

He added:

The term has been in use long enough to drop the hyphen.

No cause of death has been given, although some reports say that Tomlinson died of an apparent heart attack.

May the man who rescued the ‘@’ sign from oblivion and gave us email rest in peace. Condolences to his friends and family at this difficult time.