Ray Tomlinson, Pioneer of Email and the @ Symbol, Dies at Age 74


While checking your email today, you might want to observe a brief moment of silence for the man who made the act possible: Raymond Tomlinson. The American computer scientist single-handedly changed the way we communicate when he developed the first network person-to-person email in 1971. Tomlinson died March 5 at the age of 74, reportedly from a heart attack, The Verge reports.

Before Tomlinson, people could send electronic messages to multiple other people within a limited network, The New York Times points out. However, they couldn’t send a message to a particular person at a particular address. Tomlinson changed this while working as an employee at Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (a research and development company known as Raytheon BBN today).

BBN was instrumental in developing ARPANET, an early version of the Internet that was created for the U.S. government. Although Tomlinson was responsible for making improvements to ARPANET, he was “just fooling around” when he wrote and sent the first email on the ARPANET system. (In fact, Tomlinson reportedly showed a colleague his invention and then said, “Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on,” according to The Guardian.)

The world’s first email wasn’t a monumental message sent to another computer across the globe. Instead, it was what Tomlinson called an “entirely forgettable” missive, relayed between two computers that were side by side. Tomlinson shared the program with his co-workers, not knowing that it would someday change the world.

As personal computers became more popular, email transformed the way “millions of people shop, bank, and keep in touch with friends and family, whether they are across town or across oceans,” Tomlinson's biography on the Internet Hall of Fame website states. And since the computer scientist had chosen the “@” symbol to connect usernames with the destination address, it became a ubiquitous part of Internet culture. (The symbol entered the MoMA's collection in 2010.)

Tomlinson never became a household name, but he received plenty of recognition for his achievements. During his lifetime, he was awarded the George R. Stibitz Computer Pioneer Award from the American Computer Museum, a Webby Award from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Science, an Innovation Award from Discover magazine, and the Eduard-Rhein Cultural Award.

His death inspired countless technology companies and figureheads to remember his legacy via social media.

Watch the video above to learn more about the tech pioneer’s life—and while you’re at it, email the video link to your friends.

[h/t The Verge]

[Header image via iStock]