Ray Tomlinson, The Inventor Of E-mail When was the last time you actually set pen to paper and mailed off a personal letter to someone? It's probably been awhile — and the man responsible is Ray Tomlinson. In 1971, Tomlinson changed the way the world communicated when he invented e-mail.

The Man Who Made You Put Away Your Pen

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DARPA: Welcome to the show.

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

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

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.

: And what were you trying to do in 1971?

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.

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

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.

: Do you remember what your first email said?

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

: Who did your first message go to?

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.

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

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.

: So did you become an Internet billionaire from this?

TOMLINSON: No, I did not.

: You're not a billionaire today?

TOMLINSON: Not by several orders of magnitude.

: Hundreds of millions?

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.

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

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

: Ray Tomlinson, thanks very much.

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

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