Ray Tomlinson Sent the First Email But His Inbox Is Still a Mess

In 1971, while working as an engineer on the government-funded ur-internet known as "ARPANET":http://www.motherboard.tv/2009/11/25/this-computer-gave-birth-to-the-internet, Ray Tomlinson invented email as we know it. His wasn't the first piece of...

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Apr 20 2010, 3:49pm

In 1971, while working as an engineer on the government-funded ur-internet known as ARPANET, Ray Tomlinson invented email as we know it. His wasn't the first piece of electronic correspondence—previous systems had allowed users of the same computer to relay each other messages. But it was the first system capable of sending mail between users on different hosts connected to the ARPANET.

Tomlinson, who then, as now, was working at Cambridge-based defense contractor BB&N, began working on his messaging project out of curiosity. Eventually, he needed a way to indicate where users were on the network, so that a user on one computer could send a message to a user on another computer somewhere else. He searched his keyboard for the right symbol, and settled on the @ sign. We've been learning how to delete spam and struggling to stay away from our screens ever since.

Last month the Museum of Modern Art celebrated the sign, and its selector, by adding it to its permanent design collection. It was the first time the museum paid nothing for an acquisition, and it wasn't just the first time a keyboard key made it into the MoMA. It became the first abstract, really abstract, objet d'art in its collection.

Tomlinson's first e-mail, by the way, was not preserved (inbox zero advocates may rejoice), and he doesn't remember it. And while he's got some interesting concerns and prognostications about the future of digital communication, no—he doesn't have any special wisdom for dealing with your inbox.


Date: Wed, 24 Mar 2010 12:56:23 -0400
To: alexp@motherboard.tv
Subject: questions about @

Motherboard: Hi Ray. Where are you right now, and what are you doing?
Ray Tomlinson: I just checked and I am here, sitting in a chair in my office. I verified this with a couple of colleagues; they agreed that I am, in fact, exactly where I think I am. "Here" is in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Raytheon BBN Technologies.

When you heard that the @ sign is now part of the Museum of Modern Art's collection did you pop champagne? High fives? Did they warn you ahead of time?
It seemed a little peculiar at first. A colleague sent me a link to the article by Alice Rawsthorne in the NY Times. I subsequently tracked down the original post by Ms. Antonelli. After reading the reasoning behind the rather rash headline, it made more sense. They consulted with me a number of months ago to get more details such as the model number of the terminal on which I sent the first email on the ARPANet back in 1971.

So I had an inkling that something was afoot, but enough time had passed that I didn't immediately recall the conversation or exactly what they had said they were doing. There will probably not be any celebration, but events like this usually bring forth a flood of comments and question from friends and reporters.

The BBN ARPANET development team (courtesy of BBN / Frank Heart)

"I think we knew exactly what I had created. What we didn't know is how many users [would use it]. At the time...it would have totaled only a 1000 or so individuals."

Just to clarify, what were you doing when you "coined" the use of the @ symbol? And how did you decide to use the @ sign? What was your relationship like to that character prior to that decision?

The @ sign was not an unfamiliar character. For example, it was used in programming languages that I used. When it came time to devise a way to designate the email address of a user of a computer different from that of the sender, my goal was purely practical: I wanted a syntax that would be trivial to parse by the software. The simplest was a single character that would not appear in users' login names. Of the operating systems I was familiar with, this restricted the character to a relatively small set. As [MoMA curator] Ms. Antonelli so eloquently wrote, I chose the @ sign from that small set "…because of its strong locative sense…".

The claim made by MoMA's curator was that using the @ symbol was "by all means an act of design of extraordinary elegance and economy." Another design maven in New York scoffed, "Maybe we will wake up tomorrow and discover that the Guggenheim has acquired the ampersand, and then there will be a big rush for the exclamation mark and the question mark." Do you sort of feel like a "designer" now, or is this much arty ado about nothing?
I am as much a designer now as I was last week. I am also as skilled in a number of other ways, as I was last week.

Being called "the inventor of email" seems like a pretty cool distinction on its own. What are the perks of that kind of fame? Do you speak at conventions? Free meals at restaurants? Infinite email accounts? And how tired are you of fielding questions like these?
Not many perks. There have been a number of events acknowledging my contribution to which I have been invited and they have provided interesting travel and speaking opportunities and I have spoken at a couple of alumni gatherings, but that's all. The man-in-the-street doesn't recognize me; so no free meals and no need for a disguise. The questions seem to go with the fame. I get help with many of the routine inquiries that have already by asked and answered dozens of times.

Do you know much about the history of the @ character? It seems fairly murky.
As you say, it is murky. Fortunately, I didn't need to know the origins of the @ sign in order to use it. Only after (25 years after) the event did I find out some of the history.

I heard that you didn't think this was a big deal at first — and that when you showed it to your colleague Jerry Burchfiel, he said, "Don't tell anyone! This isn't what we're supposed to be working on." Perhaps that's a common response when it comes to a lot of inventions, but did it not really dawn on you guys what you had helped create?
I think we knew exactly what I had created – a very useful tool that almost everyone having a computer connected to the network would use. What we didn't know is how many users that would become. At the time we could probably have counted every single one of them and it would have totaled only a 1000 or so individuals.

Yeah, a bit off. As someone helping to determine how so many people would eventually use their computers, are there things you wish you had done differently in those early days?
Certainly not at the time. Perhaps in the years following that first email, the protocols that were developed should have paid more attention to privacy and authenticity considerations to reduce the vulnerability to spam and other misuse of email. But those all arose after I had moved on to other pursuits.

Beyond email, what uses of the @ sign in the "real world" have excited you?
I think the most interesting image I have seen was that of a post office somewhere (I don't remember exactly, but I want to say Israel) sporting a large @ sign in its window. I have a friend from college who collects stamps and he regularly sends me examples of @ signs on stamps from around the world. I find the irony intriguing.

The first email was sent between these two computers (Photo courtesy Dan Murphy)

I understand you have a problem with "e-mail" rather than "email." What's that about?

I'm simply trying to conserve the world's supply of hyphens. Plus, the term has been in use long enough to drop the hyphen. It seems to be a losing battle, however. The number of Google hits on "email" (1,940,000,000) still exceeds that for "e-mail" (1,290,000,000), but the margin has been reduced from a few years ago when it was more like 10:1.

As one of the oldest users of email, what's your relationship to it? How often do you check it, and roughly how many emails do you get every day? Do you have a tactic for dealing with all of it?
I use it all the time. It is my preferred means of communication. I receive a few dozen (maybe 50) emails per day. Most require no action. I send relative few, maybe a dozen per day. I don't think about how I deal with my email. I read the subject. For some emails, that is enough; then don't need to be read, but need to be kept for reference so I move those to their appropriate folder. Others I just read and file if no action is needed. Some I set aside for later (often a mistake, because I then forget about them). The others I reply to (and file).

You prefer email interviews apparently. Is it a matter of convenience, or do you find that as the earliest user of email, you're more comfortable in general talking by email than by voice or in person?
It is more convenient and I can give more consideration to the answers. I don't like to give off-the-cuff answers. The first such off-the-cuff answer in the email arena was the date of the first email. I got it wrong and said 1972. After more research I determined that the date had to have been 1971. It has been 15 years and the mistake has been mostly fixed, but every once in a while I still see somebody's time line of the internet using the 1972 date.

This is definitely a concern that applies to all new technologies, but do you ever get dismayed by the progression of our communication from face-to-face to written, from analog to digital, from longer to short, from the style of the letter to the non-style of the quick email? A lot of information is lost between a conversation and an email.
I think the only "dismay" I feel is over the tendency to blame the medium for what is a human tendency to misuse or overuse certain tools. It is a bit like the old joke about a carpenter seeing every problem as a kind of nail so he can use his hammer to solve it.

Email is not the right tool for all communication needs. Sometimes face-fo-face communication or another modality is the right tool. On the other hand, sometimes the brevity of an email can highlight the essence of a question or answer and avoid side issues or biases that might otherwise creep in.

Speaking of which, I've noticed just in the past few years how people no longer sign their names on emails, presumably because email is now so ubiquitous and frequent, thanks to smart phones. What's your email etiquette like? And do you ever use emoticons?
:-}
There is also the tendency to dispense with a greeting. I suspect these elements are being omitted because they are redundant with the information in the headers and brevity is valued. In cases where there are multiple addressees, it may be necessary to distinguish to which individual a particular part of the message is being directed and there I would use a greeting.

Personally, I prefer emails that use correctly spelled words. My spelling is usually pretty good, but I frequently type the wrong word or repeat it or start a thought one way and then finish it a different way. I find that abbreviations such as AFAIK (as far as I know) or IANAL (I am not a lawyer) slow down the reading of the message and so I usually omit such abbreviations, but I do use them occasionally. I occasionally use emoticons, but my emoticon vocabulary is limited (I couldn't tell you what the difference is between :-) and :?) ) so I mostly avoid them lest I use the wrong one ;-)

There is now also the Sarcmark, the Interrobang and soon perhaps, the Emotion Markup Language. What do you make of these additions to our email communication arsenal?
Well… I don't think you will find me using them especially if I have to go out of my way to include them in an email. I prefer plain text. Even HTML is a bit of overkill except for tables and itemized lists.

I recently started reading this book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, which traces the growth of analog-to-digital speech synthesis, from military applications to space funk music. Some of your early research at MIT also involved speech recognition and voice synthesizing? Besides being the inventor of email, are you at all responsible for the use of "the robot voice" in music?
My work was mainly in speech synthesis. My focus was on achieving natural-sounding speech using an analog electronic model of the vocal track controlled by a digital computer. Such a model has a relatively small number (about 10) of time-varying parameters that need to updated relatively infrequently (e.g. 100 times per second). In my work, the parameters were entered by manually drawing the time-varying values using a light pen on a CRT display using spectograms of actual speech as the basis and then tweaking the result until the speech sounded good.

I am not responsible for the use of "the robot voice" in music or anywhere else.

What's comes after email? What might come after the @ symbol?
I suspect there will always be a place for the communications paradigm exemplified by email. Some of the newer means of communication such as IM, Twitter, Facebook, and audio- and video-based communication (such as Google Wave) will expand to serve additional interaction modes. We will probably see a more seamless integration of these various communication modalities. These modalities may continue to be served by the same protocols that are currently used or perhaps a new multipurpose protocol will arise, but the email paradigm of asynchronous text dialogs will survive and I think the @ will continue to be used in the locative sense of its use for email.