Ray Tomlinson, the man who sent the first e-mail

Ray Tomlinson, the man who sent the first e-mail

Ray Tomlinson, the man who sent the first e-mail

by | Mar 9, 2016 | Blog, Science and Technology | 0 comments

Ray Tomlinson, the man who sent the first e-mail

by | Mar 9, 2016 | Blog, Science and Technology | 0 comments

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by Sally Baker | Time: 02:13

Mr Tomlinson’s “neat idea”, the first e-mail of all, though, was sent 45 years ago. Today, about 2.5m e-mails are sent every second.

When historians of the future study the ways information technology affected people’s lives in the late 20th century, they will surely recognise e-mail as one of the most profound. Today, about 2.5m e-mails are sent every second. The first e-mail of all, though, was sent 45 years ago by Ray Tomlinson.

Mr Tomlinson did not invent electronic mail. The practice of transmitting messages between terminals attached to the same central processing unit (CPU), using programs such as SNDMSG (sendmessage), had been around for a while. He did, however, transmit the first message between terminals attached to separate CPUs, albeit that these two computers stood side-by-side in the same room. There had been no command from on high to invent network e-mail, he said. It just seemed like “a neat idea”.

The e-mail … a neat idea

The messages he sent then, late in 1971, were, he said, “entirely forgettable. I have, therefore, forgotten them.” Later, he would send a message to the rest of his group of programmers telling them how to send messages over the network. “The first use of network e-mail,” he said, “announced its own existence.”

imagesIn those messages Mr Tomlinson also pioneered the e-mail address format that is used to this day, separating the user’s login name from the host computer’s name by the hitherto obscure “@” symbol that lurked, unloved on most standard keyboards of the day. Until then it had been employed in Spanish and Portuguese to abbreviate “arroba”, a unit of weight equivalent to about 11kg. In English, it sometimes denoted the price or weight of an item: 25 pears @ 5p, for instance. Few, then, would have suspected that this sign was about to undergo a semiotic revolution.

Eeee lad

After studying electrical engineering, first at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr Tomlinson joined Bolt Beranek and Newman in 1967. This firm (now a division of Raytheon), offered research-and-development services, mainly to defence contractors, and has been a home to many notable computer scientists. He was to spend his working life there.

At the time, researchers at America’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) had come up with the idea of an experimental computer network to link machines at different sites. In 1969, ARPA contracted Bolt Beranek and Newman to build it. The network the company constructed was ARPANET, now recognised as a precursor to the internet.

One of Mr Tomlinson’s jobs was to modify SNDMSG so that it would work on an operating system called TENEX, itself being modified for use in ARPANET. He did that, but then added more code so that SNDMSG could also send messages between machines connected by the new network. “Don’t tell anyone!” he said to a colleague afterwards, according to an article about him published in Forbes, in 1998. “This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”

Tomlinson_portraitThese days, Mr Tomlinson’s “neat idea” is one that many argue has outlived its usefulness. Rival systems, each claiming some advantage over the protocol Mr Tomlinson pioneered, have come and gone. Yet e-mail stubbornly remains the favourite way of communicating electronically at work and at home. About 300m of the @-bearing missives will have been sent since you started reading this article. That is about 50 times the number of Google searches initiated in the same period. On the news of Mr Tomlinson’s death, the Twitter account of Google’s Gmail tweeted “Thank you, Ray Tomlinson, for inventing e-mail and putting the @ sign on the map. #RIP.” Succinct and accurate. Mr Tomlinson, who was not an obsessive checker of e-mail himself, would surely have appreciated the tribute.

Original Article

From The Economist – Science and Technology

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