I didn't know who Ray Tomlinson was until he died over the weekend at age 71. I'm betting you didn't know either, even though he helped to radically transform the everyday world nearly as much as anyone I can think of.
Tomlinson is "widely credited with inventing email as we know it," eulogizes Jon Fingas at Endgadget. In the early 1970s, he created the first mail system on the first iteration of the Internet (Arpanet) and created the format of user-name, the @ symbol, and host-name that remains standard across the planet. Fingas:
Tomlinson received his share of formal recognition. He's a cornerstone of the Internet Hall of Fame, and he received everything from a Webby Award to a Prince of Asturias Laureate. However, he almost doesn't need those. Much like fellow internet pioneers Tim Berners-Lee or Vint Cerf, you're encountering his legacy virtually every time you hop online. And barring a sea change in communication, it's likely that the effect of his work will be felt for decades to come.
Do you even remember the first emails you sent? For me, it would have been sometime in 1990, at SUNY-Buffalo (which like most university systems, had a totally awful interface and set of naming protocals), and within a couple of years the vast majority of my written communications were done via email. In the mid-1990s, when I started telecommuting to Reason in Los Angeles from Huntsville, Texas, I got an HP All-in-One printer/fax/copier because we still traded printed galleys for proofing tasks. Do you know who invented the fax, another technology that revolutionized all sorts of things (and now has largely been relegated to the dustbin of history)?
Commercial fax operations only kicked into high gear in the mid-1960s, after Xerox got into the game (one more blue-chip stock impervious to market forces that is a sliver of its former self, just like Kodak, Sears, IBM, and others). But the fax is credited to Alexander Bain, circa 1843, which is kind of staggering.
We incorporate successful technology seamlessly into our lives and apart from folks such as Edison (and maybe Tesla), we quickly forget about its creators. Sometimes those inventors linger on in the public imagination in weird ways, kind of like orphaned radio transmissions beaming around the universe. Speaking of radio, I can remember my parents, who were born in the 1920s, occasionally referring to the "Marconi," by which they meant the radio, an homage to the inventor of wireless transmissions. And my father, well into the 1970s, would sometimes call the telephone (an old thousand-pound rotary dial number leased from Bell, of course) as the "Don Ameche": The actor had played Alexander Graham Bell in a 1939 biopic and Ameche's name became slang for the phone.
So it goes. Our world is built on the sacrifices and successes of those who come before, whom we rarely honor properly (or for very long). We make sure that we know the great generals of the past and the kings and queens of Europe and the ancient world whose legacy is typically more about conquest and plunder than about actually creating a richer, better world.
We'd do better to remember the Ray Tomlinsons of the world (remember: he's the guy who came up with email) and not simply because we should give credit where credit is due.
As Peter Thiel noted trenchantly in his 2014 book Zero to One, we wrongly assume techological progress as a given. That's an attitude, he argues, that gives rise to lassitude when it comes to pushing for the next great breakthrough that might radically improve all of our lives. "[Where] the ancients," he wrote, "saw all of history as a never-ending alternation between prosperity and ruin, only recently have people dared to hope that we might permanently escape misfortune."
But that doesn't happen on its own. It happens because of specific people with specific mind-sets in specific contexts. Knowing their histories isn't just a guide to where we've come from but where we might head next.