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Ray Tomlinson, We Thank You

The creator of something that we all take of advantage of day in and day out-email- has passed away. In a time where computers were in their prehistoric age- Ray Tomlinson invented direct email messages in 1971. With the Internet and the computer still being a fairly new invention it was almost unfathomable that you would be able to send a direct message from one computer to another. He credits the inspiration of the invention to colleagues who didn’t answer their phones…


Photo Credit- NPR

Tomlinson was a graduate of MIT and working at a Boston technology firm called Bolt. He didn’t have an Apple Laptop sitting on his lap when he invented email; he had a computer at his work that filled up the entire room. “Computers were very expensive — I think one we had here, for example, was something on the order of two or three hundred thousand dollars. That’s 1970 dollars. They were a scarce resource,” Tomlinson told the Verge in 2012 in an interview.

He was given the task of figuring out a way for humans and computers to interact. Instead, Tomlison focused on the minimal interaction via telephone between himself and distant colleagues and developed an alternative form to communicate- email. It all began by testing the invention between two computers that he had within his office. Tomlinson stated, “The keyboards were about 10 feet apart, I could wheel my chair from one to the other and type a message on one, and then go to the other, and then see what I had tried to send.”

Not only did Tomlison create the capability of sending a message directly from one computer to another, he also introduced the world to the @ sign. He needed a way to separate the names of the senders to the recipients. Tomlison said in an interview withNPR, that the @ sign turns an email address into a phrase. “It means “user ‘at’ host.” Tomlinson continued, “It’s the only preposition on the keyboard.” As of 2009, more than a billion people were using the @ sign every single day. Within the same interview with NPR, he admitted that his inventions would have a huge impact on the world; he just didn’t realize how quickly it would happen.

Thank you Ray Tomlison for your invention and rest in peace.

Photo credit: NPR

Tess Lowth @tess_lowth

Emerging Media Graduate Student

Loyola University