Ray Tomlinson, an American programmer and a legend in the world of technology, is the inventor of email. He sent the very first email, in the ARPANET computer network in 1971, and is person responsible for the use of the @ symbol in email addresses.

This engineer, who passed away recently, revolutionised communication forever, laying the foundations for what is considered to be the first social network.

Destined to change our world

How did he come to invent one of the best communication systems of all time? It all began in the 60s, when Tomlinson was 22 years old. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and began a masters in electrical engineering at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute Technology (MIT).

At MIT he worked in the field of speech synthesis, but it was his time at BBN (Bolt, Beranek and Newman) which allowed him to delve deeper into electronic communication systems.

BBN was the engineering company tasked with creating first network of computers for the US Department of DefenseARPANET, in 1969. There, Ray worked on the development of a military intercommunication stem and was part of a team which came up with SNDMSG, a program which allowed users of a single computer to message each other.

Thus the first email was sent

Email is a network service capable of sending and receiving messages via electronic communication systems.  This had already been achieved in 1966, but only in closed networks on the same server.

There was still a need to send messages between different users connect to a network of unknown computers. Tomlinson solved this in 1971, when he incorporated the use of the @ symbol to identify which user was at which computer.

Ray Tomlinson, his computer and the@ symbol

Ray Tomlinson, his computer and the@ symbol

It was a perfect idea, because the @ symbol was present on all keyboards, and wasn’t used for anything else. The first ever email address was tomlinson@bbn-tenexa”. Tomlinson says he can’t remember what he put in his first email. “I probably just typed something nonsensical” he has said.

He didn’t only rescue the @ symbol…

His career continued to develop at BBN, where he perfected the system of attaching files to emails, designed network protocols and architecture, and carried on his work in digital speech synthesis.

Tomlinson was included in the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012, the same year it was created. He was recognised as one of the innovators who contributed to the development of the network of networks.

He had already been awarded the prestigious Prince of Asturias award for Technical and Scientific Research along with Martin Cooper, considered to be the inventor of mobile telephony.

Tomlinson receiving the Prince of Asturias award

Tomlinson receiving the Prince of Asturias award

Of course, it is unanimously accepted that he is a deserving recipient of the prize. We owe him such a great deal for revolutionising the way we communicate!

Sources: WikipediaBBN (now Raytheon).