Tributes flow for the American computer scientist who ‘changed the way the world communicates.
Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email and the man who picked the @ symbol for addresses, has died aged 74.
“A true technology pioneer, Ray was the man who brought us email in the early days of networked computers,” Raytheon spokesman Mike Doble said in a statement confirming his death.
Doble said Tomlinson died on Saturday morning but he did not know if he was at home and did not have a confirmed cause of death. Tomlinson worked in the company’s office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The tech world reacted with sadness over the passing of Tomlinson, who became a cult figure for his invention in 1971 of a program for ARPANET, the Internet’s predecessor, that allowed people to send person-to-person messages to other computer users on other servers.
Thank you, Ray Tomlinson, for inventing email and putting the @ sign on the map,”
Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf called his death “very sad news.”
“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,” Doble said.
Originally from Amsterdam, New York, Tomlinson went to school at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and MIT in the 1960s, and was working at research and development company Bolt Beranek and Newman – now Raytheon BBN Technologies – when he made his email breakthrough.
The program changed the way people communicate both in business and in personal life, revolutionising how “millions of people shop, bank, and keep in touch with friends and family, whether they are across town or across oceans”, reads his biography on the Internet Hall of Fame website.
According to a 1998 profile in Forbes magazine, Tomlinson showed a colleague his invention and then, famously, said: “Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”
At the time, few people had personal computers. The popularity of personal email wouldn’t take off until years later but has become an integral part of modern life.
“It wasn’t an assignment at all, he was just fooling around; he was looking for something to do with ARPANET,” Raytheon spokeswoman Joyce Kuzman said of his creation of network email.
Tomlinson once said in a company interview that he created email “mostly because it seemed like a neat idea”. The first email was sent between two machines that were side-by-side, according to that interview.
He said the test messages were “entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them”. But when he was satisfied that the program seemed to work, he announced it via his own invention by sending a message to co-workers explaining how it could be used.
Tomlinson chose the @ symbol to connect the username with the destination address and it has become part of the international language of communication.
Kuzman said Tomlinson was looking at the keyboard and needed something that would not otherwise be part of the address and that seemed to be a logical solution.
“It is a symbol that probably would have gone away if not for email,” she said.
Around the time email started to become a household word, Tomlinson began receiving worldwide recognition for his achievement.
In 2000, he received the George R. Stibitz Computer Pioneer Award from the American Computer Museum. From there followed honors that included a Webby Award from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Science, and an Innovation award from Discover magazine, and the Eduard-Rhein Cultural Award, according to his biography.
He lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts where he raised miniature sheep. Attempts to contact his family were unsuccessful.
While more general email protocols were later developed and adopted, Tomlinson’s contributions were never forgotten.
“He was pretty philosophical about it all,” Kuzman said. “And was surprisingly not addicted to email.”