How the First Email Message was Born

Back in October 1971, programmer Ray Tomlinson had no idea what he was about to start when he essentially sent the first email. That email consisted of something resembling “QWERTYUIOP.” It was a test email and had absolutely no importance to him at the time, so it was not preserved for posterity.

While email had been sent before on networks such as PLATO and AUTODIN, those messages were sent to users on the same computer. Yes, there was a time when not everyone had their own computer. What made Tomlinson’s email so unique and revolutionary is that he was able to send it to a single user on a different host connected to ARPANET. This is how the first email message was born.

Born in Amsterdam NY in 1941, Tomlinson received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He participated in RPI’s co-op program with IBM. He also received a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Speech Communication Department. At MIT, he developed an analog-digital hybrid speech synthesizer, which was also the subject of his Master’s thesis.

Tomlinson joined the research and development firm BBN Technologies in 1967. There he had a hand in developing the TENEX operating system and the TELNET network protocol. He also was assigned to the development of ARPANET, the US military’s communications network, which was an early form on the Internet.

One of his duties included adapting a program called SNDMSG for use on TENEX. The SNDMSG program allowed different users on a shared computer to leave messages for each other. Using code from CPYNET, Tomlinson devised a way to send messages to users on other computers, which resulted in the first email. That first email was sent from one Digital Equipment Corporation computer to another DEC-10, which happened to sit beside each other in his lab.

Amazingly, Tomlinson is also responsible for choosing the “@” sign to designate users from different hosts, thus establishing the convention for the modern email address. At first he didn’t make a big deal about his technological breakthrough and didn’t realize the significance his side project would have decades later.

Tomlinson would later show colleague Jerry Burchfiel his email-messaging system, not thinking it was a big deal. Burchfiel knew better. Tomlinson’s discovery was quickly adopted across the ARPANET, which significantly increased the popularity of email.

Earlier this year on March 4, 2016, Tomlinson passed away at his home in Lincoln, Massachusetts from a heart attack at age 74. Today, nearly 45 years later after its beginnings, billions of emails are sent every day, and we have Ray Tomlinson to thank for it.

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