In a special series Zamzar take a look at some of the people who have helped shape technology and made it what it is today.
Life before email
Originally from Amsterdam, New York, Tomlinson came from modest beginnings having studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before going to MIT where he would graduate in 1965. He went and worked at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), a company which at that time had received a government contract to work on the Arpanet, the precursor of the Internet. At the time he was tasked with building an operating system on budget hardware. Whilst building that operating system, and other applications, Tomlinson and his colleagues discussed ideas for a mailbox protocol. Originally, the idea that had been floated was to create numbered electronic mailboxes so that mails could then be printed out and hand delivered to the boxes with the corresponding numbers. Tomlinson though was not impressed “I looked at that and said, ‘Well, it’s an interesting idea, but it’s way too complicated.” He felt a better idea would be a messaging application in which someone could send an electronic message to another individual. Tomlinson was so intrigued by this idea that he went and built it but initially it only worked on a local machine but then he went a step further and created cross-Arpanet mail.
Email in the early days
Technology was vastly different back then and so didn’t have a mouse, or even a monitor. Instead, he had a terminal – Teletype Model 33 KSR – that had been connected to a printer so that when you typed the printer would print the word onto a page. It was effectively a more intelligent typewriter. So this meant that the very first email had to be printed out to be read. When asked years later what was the content of his first email Tomlinson said he couldn’t remember! “It was completely ephemeral, so any trace of it is gone,” he said. “There may be a machine that has some memory that was hooked up at the time, but you’d never be able to find it.
As stated on BBN’s website: “The first email was sent between the two machines shown in this photograph. They were (obviously) side-by-side, but the only connection between them was through the ARPANET. In the foreground is BBN-TENEXA (BBNA for short). Host names in 1971 had no .com or dot anything; DNS came along later. BBNA was the machine on which the first email was received. In the background is BBN-TENEXB (BBNB) from which the first email was sent. On the left, foreground, is the Teletype KSR-33 terminal on which the first email was printed. Immediately behind and largely obscured is another KSR-33 on which the first email was typed.”
The @ symbol
A key part of email was Tomlinson’s decision to use the @ symbol to introduce an email address. The reason for the @ symbol was to be able to identify the receiving email address was “at” a different computer host network. In other words, the person receiving the mail was not on on the same local computer network as the person sending the email. In using this symbol Tomlinson was able to develop code such that he could connect the user name with the destination address and thereby direct an email message to be sent out to a totally separate computer system over the ARPANET and reach its intended email address on the remote host computer. When asked why he chose that particular symbol Tomlinson said “I thought about other symbols, but @ didn’t appear in any names, so it worked.” In the 1980s the @symbol was almost replaced by an exclamation mark but that idea never took off. Twitter and other companies may look a different now had it done so!
The difference between email then and now
That early email application that Tomlinson had built looked a little different to what we are used to today. In a recent article with the Atlantic the process is described:
“In the early days, checking email required a person to log onto a computer and use the keyboard to enter a “type mailbox” command. “The mailbox was just a file and the type command typed the contents of the file onto the paper in the terminal,” Tomlinson said. “Some systems would check the user’s mailbox after they logged in, and if it was not empty, a message like, ‘YOU HAVE MAIL,’ would be printed.” A separate program had to be used to compose outgoing messages, before inbox-outbox functionalities were eventually integrated. “By the end of the 1970s, most of the features of email we take for granted were present,” Tomlinson said
Rather than be excited by what he had created, Tomlinson’s initial reaction at what he created was one of fear. He would tell his colleague and friend, Jerry Burchfiel, to not tell anyone that he’d built what he’d built because “This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.” Tomlinson feared he’d get in trouble for creating what he created and so spent the next few months hiding it and playing it down.
Tomlinson needn’t have worried. Larry Roberts, director of DARPA – the Government Agency that ran the Arpanet, were impressed by the system that Tomlinson had created and wanted to then do all their communication by the electronic mail system he’d created. Researchers who needed funding and therefore dependant on Roberts had to get on board with this new program and so electronic mail went from being useful to essential.
Once the World Wide Web made its splash in 1989 email became a central part of it. By 1995 14% of all Americans had an email address and then by 1997 almost all workplaces relied on it. Culturally, it even made news with a popular 90s film “You’ve got Mail” being centered around this idea of email.
Somebody once asked Tomlinson if he talks and thinks about what he has done often but the answer was no. “I’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that everybody wants to know the origins of email,” he told Adrienne Lafrance in 1996. He went on to say “I think when I first realized that something interesting had happened was probably in 1994. There was a 25th anniversary of the ARPANET celebration and … somebody asked the question, ‘Where did email come from?’ I remembered that I had done this little program back in 1971. People looked back and nobody could find anything that predated it. I hadn’t realized it up until that point.”
A humble man who was still working as a principal scientist at BBN Technologies – a company he’d been working for almost all his life – until his death aged 74. Tomlinson didn’t “do social media” nor did he check his email at the weekend. In fact, he was quite the Luddite in many ways having not even had a mobile phone. He’s probably the most game changing Luddite to have ever have lived.