@ — or how Raymond Tomlinson wrote the future of email

Internet pioneer Ray Tomlinson, who is credited with the invention of e-mail, has died at the age of 74

Written by Nandagopal Rajan | New Delhi | Updated: March 9, 2016 9:09 am
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It is debatable whether there would’ve been email without Raymond Tomlinson, but it’s certain that @ would not have been such an important part of our lives and popular culture if he hadn’t been around.

The first known electronic message service was the AUTODIN network that became operational in 1962, linking 1,350 terminals and handling 30 million messages of around 3,000-character length every month. Tomlinson came into the picture in 1971, when his company, a defence contractor called Bolt, Beranek and Newman, developed a messaging programme, Sndmsg, that allowed multiple users of a time-share computer to send messages to one another. His contribution was in opening up the network.

“Mr Tomlinson, filching code from a file-transfer programme he had created called Cpynet, modified Sndmsg so that messages could be sent from one host computer to another throughout the Arpanet system. To do this, he needed a symbol to separate a user name from a destination address. He settled on the plump little @ sign because it did not appear in user names and did not have any meaning in the TENEX paging programme used on time-sharing computers,” William Grimes wrote in his obituary published in The New York Times.

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The Internet Society in Geneva says Tomlinson “brought about a complete revolution, fundamentally changing the way people communicate”. Actually, Tomlinson was careful to note that he was the first to send a “network email”, rather than an email pure and simple. In a interview to BBN website, he said he invented email “mostly because it seemed like a neat idea. There was no directive to ‘go forth and invent email’”.

Email as we know it today, is an amalgamation of scores of different software versions and technologies that came afterwards. By the mid-1980s, networked personal computers had started entering homes, and people were using email programmes like cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail and Lotus Notes to communicate with those on the same server.

In a few years, there were attempts to send electronic mails between different organisations, and companies tried services like BITNET and FidoNet to connect “dissimilar computers”.

The game changer came in 1993 in the form of webmail. In fact, the first known implementation of server-based mail was at CERN, which is now doing some pioneering research in the field of encrypted email. In a few years, several big players like AOL, Yahoo! and Hotmail were offering the service. By then, mail had moved beyond pure text to HTML and rich content. In 2004 came Gmail, and it has since grown into the world’s most popular webmail service with over 1 billion users in 72 languages.

With inputs from NYT