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The Man Who Made You Put Away Your Pen

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The Man Who Made You Put Away Your Pen

The Man Who Made You Put Away Your Pen

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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GUY RAZ, host:

It was DARPA, or rather ARPA as it was known in 1969, that funded the first computer network, the system was called the ARPANET. And it was to the Internet what the Neanderthal is to modern man. As part of our series, The Net at 40, we're exploring the ideas behind it and talking with the people who helped build it, and before we meet our next guest, let me ask you this question: When was the last time you actually put pen to paper and mailed off a personal letter to someone? I can't remember the last time I did, and of course, the reason is email.

Now, back in 1971, Ray Tomlinson was working on a system that would allow him to send message from one computer to another, and he needed a way to separate the name of the sender from the name of the computer so the addresses wouldn't get confused. He decided to use the @ symbol.

Tomlinson's messaging system eventually became the email that we use today. And Ray Tomlinson is in Boston.

Welcome to the show.

Mr. RAY TOMLINSON: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

RAZ: Could you ever have imagined that the system you were working on in 1971 would change the way we all communicate today?

Mr.�TOMLINSON: I guess I could have imagined it. What I didn't imagine was how quickly that would happen. What it took was a very marked growth in networks and computers to make it all happen.

RAZ: And what were you trying to do in 1971?

Mr.�TOMLINSON: Well, in 1971, I was busily trying to find things to use this new-fangled network for. I heard about a proposal to send messages to be printed with a printer and stuffed away in mailboxes for people to read, and I said these messages should go to computers, and so I thought about it for a bit and then decided to put together a system that might do that.

RAZ: And so you you were just kind of doing this on your own. Nobody said hey, Ray, can you invent email?

Mr.�TOMLINSON: The statement of work did not say: Thou shall go forth and invent email. But we were working on ways in which humans and computers could interact and try to improve that interaction.

RAZ: Do you remember what your first email said?

Mr.�TOMLINSON: Well, everybody asks that, and of course, I don't remember every single word of it. The main thing is there were lots of test messages. You know, these things don't work out of the box because there was no box. Every time you test, you have to generate some kind of a message, and you might drag your fingers across the keyboard or just type the opening phrase from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or something else.

So technically, the first email is completely forgettable and, therefore, forgotten.

RAZ: Who did your first message go to?

Mr.�TOMLINSON: All the test messages were sent to myself. I had two computers that were literally side by side, the keyboards were about 10 feet apart, and I could wheel my chair from one to the other and type a message in one and then go to the other and see what I tried to send.

RAZ: Now, why did you pick the @ sign, this iconic symbol? How did you pick that symbol?

Mr.�TOMLINSON: Yeah. Well, certainly, it wasn't an icon back in 1971. But it was a key on the keyboard that did not appear in users' names, did not appear in host names. It made sense. It's the preposition. I mean, it's user at host. It is the only preposition on the keyboard.

RAZ: So did you become an Internet billionaire from this?

Mr.�TOMLINSON: No, I did not.

RAZ: You're not a billionaire today?

Mr.�TOMLINSON: Not by several orders of magnitude.

RAZ: Hundreds of millions?

Mr.�TOMLINSON: No, I've often thought about what it would have taken, you know, what fraction of a cent per @ sign would it take to make me very comfortable, and it's not it's a very small fraction.

RAZ: So Ray Tomlinson, do you feel comfortable with the title Ray Tomlinson, inventor of email?

Mr.�TOMLINSON: Oh, yeah, you can call me that.

RAZ: Fair enough.

That's Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email and a principal engineer at Bolt Beranek and Newman, now known as BBN Technologies. You can find out more about the invention of email at our Web site. That's

Ray Tomlinson, thanks very much.

Mr.�TOMLINSON: Well, you're welcome, and I'm glad I had this opportunity to speak to you and your audience.

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