Thanks to reader Reese, I learned that Ray Tomlinson had just died at the age of 74. Who was Tomlinson? He was the person who invented email. In 1971 he was working on ARPANET, the precursor to the internet, and fooling around trying to find more uses for it when he invented it.
Tomlinson once said in a company interview that he created email “mostly because it seemed like a neat idea”. The first email was sent between two machines that were side-by-side, according to that interview.
He said the test messages were “entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them”. But when he was satisfied that the program seemed to work, he announced it via his own invention by sending a message to co-workers explaining how it could be used.
Tomlinson decided to use the @ symbol to demarcate the username from the destination because it seemed the least likely to occur normally as part of the address. I recall encountering and using the @ symbol only in my bookkeeping classes as part of an accountancy program, to denote the cost per unit of an item. If not for his adoption, that symbol may well have gone extinct because of its highly limited utility.
But that is of course a trivial aspect of Tomlinson’s work. Email has revolutionized communications and it is hard to imagine a world without it
I first encountered email before the general public because I was working for US universities and national laboratories and we used a system that existed between those institutions before the arrival of the internet. It was known as BITNET that stood for ‘Because It’s There Network’.