The man who invented email and made '@' famous has died

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Ray Tomlinson, who is credited with inventing email as we know it, died on Saturday at the age of 74. His employer, defense contractor Raytheon, confirmed the death in a statement on Sunday.


"A true technology pioneer, Ray was the man who brought us email in the early days of networked computers… His work changed the way the world communicates and yet, for all his accomplishments, he remained humble, kind and generous with his time and talents," Raytheon said, adding, "He will be missed by one and all."

Tomlinson was working at Bolt Beranek and Newman—now Raytheon BBN technologies—when he invented email in 1971. He explained in a blog post that his innovation was a riff on ARPANET's early file-sharing program:

I was making improvements to the local inter-user mail program called SNDMSG. Single-computer electronic mail had existed since at least the early 1960's and SNDMSG was an example of that. SNDMSG allowed a user to compose, address, and send a message to other users' mailboxes… the missing piece was that the experimental CPYNET protocol had no provision for appending to a file; it could just send and receive files.


Tomlinson added that the first email—the text of which was, in his words, "entirely forgettable"—was exchanged between computers that were "literally side by side."

A spokeswoman for Raytheon, Joyce Kuzman, noted that the new tool was not commissioned by Raytheon. "It wasn't an assignment at all," she said, "he was just fooling around."

In a 2001 interview with The New York Times, Tomlinson explained that those first test messages were sent to himself. "I would type the message in on one machine, go to the other machine and examine my mailbox there to see if it had arrived." Then, he explained, he made his invention public. "When it finally worked reliably, I sent a message from the development machine…to all the users in my group on the production machine…describing what I had done, including the @ convention for separating the user name from the host name."

The @ symbol has since become a part of the language of the internet, and in 2010 its iconic status was cemented by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which included the symbol in its permanent collection. MoMA said in a statement at the time that, "In January 1971, @ was an underused jargon symbol lingering on the keyboard and marred by a very limited register," but "by October, Tomlinson had rediscovered and appropriated it, imbuing it with new meaning and elevating it to defining symbol of the computer age."


Tomlinson explained in his blog post that he chose the @ symbol because it doesn't appear in people's names. He added, "I used the at sign to indicate that the user was 'at' some other host rather than being local."

Tomlinson, who earned a B.S. at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and then an S.M at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012.

Tomlinson lived in Massachusetts where, in addition to his work for Raytheon, he bred miniature sheep.


Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.