Not many of us when we die can be said to have changed the world, but Ray Tomlinson did. The name might not mean much to you, it certainly didn’t to me. But his work shaped modern life in remarkable ways and perhaps in annoying ways too.
Tomlinson, who has died aged 74, is described as the inventor of email and the man who picked the @ symbol for addresses. That almost encircled letter ‘a’ is now so familiar it seems always to have been here. It’s almost as if the man who invented the full stop had just died.
“A true technology pioneer, Ray was the man who brought us email in the early days of networked computers,” a spokesman for his company, Raytheon, said this morning.
Like most of us, I use his invention all the time, rather obsessively checking my two email addresses to see what messages have popped in there. Working from home, email is my link to the outside world. Without Ray and his @ symbol innovation, I’d be sitting here twiddling my thumbs or perhaps cursing the whine of a paper-chewing fax machine.
According to The Guardian this morning, Tomlinson “became a cult figure for his invention in 1971 of a program for ARPANET, the Internet’s predecessor, that allowed people to send person-to-person messages to other computer users on other servers”.
On the Internet Hall of Fame website – who knew such a place existed? But it does as I’ve just had a look – it says that Tomlinson’s program changed how we communicate in business and personal life, revolutionising how we “shop, bank, and keep in touch with friends and family, whether they are across town or across oceans”.
All of that is true and few of us could do without email nowadays, but there are disadvantages, especially to the office worker who returns from a break to find they have 1,000 emails to read. Ease of communication does not always equate to having something worthwhile to say.
Deleting at will is usually the only response, killing off what is mostly unnecessary. Occasionally an important message will be culled in error, but the sender can always send another one. Nowadays I am often that sender, a member of the annoying “Did you get my email?” brigade.
Tone can be difficult in emails, and offence can be caused unintentionally; and of course you don’t hear a voice, which is a loss. But still, we’d be nowhere without emails now.
Tomlinson, who was originally from Amsterdam, New York, was said to have been fooling around when he came up with his invention, which just goes to show the creative benefits of messing about – a much undervalued enterprise in an age when everything is meant to be done for a particular purpose.
Reportedly, Tomlinson showed his invention to a colleague, then said: “Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”
As few people had personal computers at the time, the popularity – and perhaps unpopularity, too – of personal email didn’t take off for many years. But it is now hard to imagine life without email.
Sometimes we try so hard to do things, and yet the biggest achievements can be the ones we never knew we were working on at all. Must dash now. Need to check those emails.