Ray Tomlinson:
goodbye to the inventor
of the @ in email addresses

The man who didn't know he would change the future of communication

Home life Ray Tomlinson:
goodbye to the inventor
of the @ in email addresses
Ray Tomlinson:
goodbye to the inventor
of the @ in email addresses

On 7 March this year, the American media announced the death of Ray Tomlinson, who had died at the age of 74. His co-workers remember a humble and modest man who didn't use emails that often, despite having invented the communication system we all use today.

Ray Tomlinson: goodbye to the inventor of the @ in email addresses

Tomlinson always gave the same advice to anyone asking about his work and the huge mystery that was the Internet: "Don't believe everything you read on the web. Remember, there are humans behind those web pages and humans make mistakes."

The Origins
The evolution of all species has been managed and governed by communication, via languages that allow contact between animals and individuals. This has brought balanced and shared development, change and adaptation.

Different types of communication govern interactions and all are linked to each other to produce a message that passes from thought form to actions, shared and understood by the interlocutor.

Sign language is a primordial language which, since the dawn of time, has enabled mankind to speak via gestures, movements and expressions; visual language is strongly linked to contemporary communication, expressed via the many images that - on a daily basis - invade and fill our minds with information on huge advertising placards, acting as pictures or wallpaper on buildings and all the streets frequented by millions of people every day; verbal language is expressed by means of extremely precise linguistic codes based on written and spoken forms.

We see a growing and pressing urgency to communicate in a world that is coming together, quickly and compulsively, in a single body of global actions and thoughts. Delivering messages, sending information without having to worry about space and time restrictions is a challenge overcome thanks to many of the innovations brought by the inventions of brilliant minds, They have helped improve the quality of communication which, with these means, has become easier and more immediate. In the beginning, there were letters, handwritten sheets of paper that had to travel, sometimes for months on end, before reaching their recipient but first the telephone and then the Internet, Smartphones, instant messaging programs and social networks radically transformed our lives, drastically shortening all distances and putting us in touch with far-off dimensions in real time.

From the 1930s, telegraphic communication was achieved via teleprinters linked to each other automatically, transmitting a relay signal using impulses and sending messages in the Baudot code. The 1960s saw the creation of the type B telex linked by radio or microwave links, using the same code. Anyone who thinks it has been mothballed is wrong, however. Replaced in the 1980s by the fax and then, in chronological order, by email, telex is used today for weather bulletins and military communications.

The Discovery
The revolutionary discovery came in 1971 and was made by a young US computer programmer called Ray Tomlinson. Although he didn't know it then, he would permanently change the future of communication between billions of people, delivering huge benefits to the market, the economy and everyday life. He was educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston where he gained a master in electronic engineering, working on a speech synthesizer. Then, in the laboratories of American company Bolt, Beranek and Newman, now BBN Technologies, he worked on the development of ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the precursor of the Internet. This computer network was created in 1969 by the US Department of Defense when it invented a computer system to send electronic mail between universities linked by this network. The intention was to make the exchange of messages between all the machines linked up to each other more immediate and as fast as possible and he managed to develop a program that combined the features of both SNDMSG and CPYNET.

Until that time, electronic messages could only be sent between users with access to the same computer. Tomlinson, however, introduced the use of the @ symbol to separate a user name from its reference domain.

It is without dispute that he invented email, which permanently revolutionised business and personal communication in a pioneering manner. The first email travelled via SNDMSG software between two computers in the same room, linked by ARPANET. His statement, probably confused because of the mass of information and memories occupying Tomlinson's mind, regarding that written in the famous first email sent in a climate of revolutionary discovery remains memorable. He has always says it read QWERTYUIOP, all in capital letters - a meaningless sequence of letters, those appearing on the top row of a keyboard. He was also responsible for dividing the key elements of an email message, the subject and addressee.

Tomlinson chose the symbol @, borrowed from the business and accountancy world. It is a stylised combination of the letters "a" and "d", forming the Latin locution "ad" indicating movement and conveyed in English with “at”. This became the ID sign of an email account. Tomlinson chose this symbol because it never appears in a name and would never be ambiguous.

Familiar since antiquity, the @ symbol has been attributed to monks who used it to abbreviate the Latin preposition, to the writings of the Italian Renaissance and even to Peruvian writings. In 16th-century Venice, it indicated the earthenware amphora used to quantify exchanges between merchants. What we do know is that this symbol was already being used as an abbreviation in trade and, in the early 20th century, Underwood included it on its typewriter keyboards as the abbreviation of the English “at the rate of”.

Tomlinson's invention did not become immediately widespread and nearly 20 years passed before the @ and everything surrounding this immense discovery emerged in the world of communication to show everyone what was to come. Indeed, it was only when Arpanet changed from being a US Defense project to a tool for universities and, eventually, the Internet that email became popular and what it is today.
Following the worldwide clamour created by Tomlinson's studies, this pioneer of technology, by then deemed a true revolutionary of the digital era, received numerous prizes and awards. In 2012, he was also inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame alongside all the pioneers of the Internet era who contributed with their great and revolutionary innovations to the development of the web. During the ceremony, Tomlinson was asked whether, on that day in 1971 as the email was travelling from one computer to the other, he had realised what he was creating. He replied that, yes, he knew perfectly well what he was doing but had no idea that his discovery would be so crucial.

Some Other Names 
As well as that of Tomlinson, other names ring out on an Olympus that only has space for brilliant minds which have permanently changed the lives of all mankind without encountering obstacles and restrictive boundaries.

•    Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn are the duo that can boast paternity of one of the most important inventions of the last 50 years: the Internet. Together, they created the TCP/IP protocol, the language computers use to communicate via the Internet.
•     Tim Berners-Lee must be thanked for the triple W of the World Wide Web.
•    The father of emoticons, the small faces that convey feelings and moods and are literally supplanting whole sentences, is Scott Fahlman, a US computer scientist who, like Tomlinson, gained a PhD at MIT.
•    Two very young men, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, founded the Google search engine together.
•    An unavoidable presence on this important and prestigious list is Bill Gates, who, in 1975, founded the Microsoft Corporation with Paul Allen and is now its honorary president.
•    The creator of a life philosophy as well as a US IT entrepreneur and inventor, Steve Jobs founded Apple and invented  technological devices such as the Macintosh, iMac, iPod, lPad and ’iPhone that have revolutionised our lives. These products have become status symbols for entire generations.
•    We must thank Niklas Zennstrom, co-founder of Skype, for the ability to see each other while chatting, at a distance of perhaps millions of kilometres.
•    People looking for jobs today no longer read ads in newspapers and they steer clear of knocking on doors. Instead they go to LinkedIn, a  social network centred on forming a network of expertise among registered users, who post their professional experience so that others may seek it out and assess it.
•    One of the most famous names of the last decade is Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, which needs no presentation.
•    Alongside him is Jack Dorsey, who created Twitter.
•    Even the pleasure of shopping has been revolutionised and many now avoid the crowded shops and shopping centres, opting for a different channel where they can find everything they need without shop assistants or stands. Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in 1994.

An Icon

The impact of American Tomlinson's invention on today's world of social networks is truly huge, especially given that the @ has become synonymous with immediate, direct communication between individuals and is used in this sphere to tag online users.

The names given to this small symbol which has, to all effects, become one of those most clicked on during the day - by anyone no matter what age - are truly many. In Italy, it is called a snail, in Russia it is a puppy, in Sweden it is an elephant's trunk but also kanelbulle, a traditional cinnamon bun; in Denmark, it is a monkey's tail, in Hungary a worm. In Greece it is a duck, in Japan a cyclone, in Spain an amphora, in Israel a strudel, in China a mouse and in Finland a curled-up cat.

It has become more than simply a business symbol and is now an icon of our times and concrete proof of the changes and a revolution that has drastically reset times and shortened distances. As well as in email addresses, it is also essential on Facebook and Twitter, the two leading social networks of our times.

In 2010, the @ earned itself a place of honour in the Museum of Modern Art collection in New York (MoMA). Alongside great artists such as Picasso, Cezanne, Warhol, Kandinsky and their priceless art works is the @, permanently erasing the condition that you can only possess an object if it physically exists. Acquired by the Museum's Department of Architecture and Design, it is an icon representing a changed reality that has resulted in an ancient symbol rising to play the role of a work of art proper in contemporary times.

One question perhaps springs to mind: has technology truly shortened distances or has it created another type of distance that - with the advent of social networks and the excessive use of a speed of communication that is not verbal but written virtually - inevitably marks a society full of people interacting without actually speaking to each other?

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