The Man Who Invented Email Has Died

Ray Tomlinson sent the first message between two computers on the ARPANET in 1971.

Ray Tomlinson, the man credited with inventing email in 1971, died Saturday at age 74, his employer confirmed to the Associated Press.

Tomlinson joined technology company Bolt, Beranek and Newman in the late 1960s as a programmer after receiving a graduate degree from MIT. In 1971, he began trying to improve an existing messaging system that allowed users of the same computer to send messages to each other.

Tomlinson had the idea to combine the single-computer messaging program with an experimental file-transfer program. Computers at BBN were connected to the ARPANET, a network originally designed by the U.S. Department of Defense that would become the precursor for the internet.

To distinguish local and network mail, he chose to combine a user's login with an @ symbol, then the host name. Thus, the modern email address was born.

Thank you, Ray Tomlinson, for inventing email and putting the @ sign on the map. #RIP

"The primary reason was that it made sense," Tomlinson wrote on his website, explaining the choice of the @ symbol. "[@] signs didn't appear in names so there would be no ambiguity about where the separation between login name and host name occurred."

The first message was sent between two computers sitting next to each other, only connected by the ARPANET. The first email was a jumble of characters, which Tomlinson ultimately forgot.

"When I was satisfied that the program seemed to work, I sent a message to the rest of my group explaining how to send messages over the network," he wrote. "The first use of network email announced its own existence."

He created email because "it seemed like a neat idea," he wrote.

Within several years, most of the traffic on ARPANET was email.

"Email took us from Arpanet to the Internet," according to a Net History article. "Here was something that ordinary people all over the world wanted to use."

The development earned Tomlinson a spot in the Internet Hall of Fame as well as honors from a variety of organizations and publications. There was no patent on the work, and he said he received no reward.

"Not unless you consider the current interest in the origins of email a reward," he wrote.

Tomlinson remained employed at BBN Technologies, which is now a subsidiary of Raytheon.

Skip to footer