Why We Should Honor Ray Tomlinson, Inventor of Email, But Will Probably Forget Him Anyway

Technological progress and innovation aren't a given and don't happen on their own.


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.

More here.

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.

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  1. I’ll always remember the contrast between reaction to Jobs’ demise (flags at half-staff) and the death of Dennis Ritchie one day after (nobody noticed).

  2. For any math geeks out there. I remember hearing Gilbert Strang say that he and Ed Askey would never figure out email.

  3. Do you even remember the first emails you sent?

    Vaguely. Would have been in ’90 or ’91, at my second law firm.

    1. Had ’em in ’88 at my first job. Sent ’em all the way across the office.

      1. I think we added the Internet around 91 or 92. We could finally check the sports scores without pulling out a newspaper, so people thought you were still working. I’m still surprised productivity hasn’t fallen much since then.

  4. Nobody remembers the inventor of the internal combustion engine either, just Ford.

    1. At the Museum of Technik in Berlin they in fact have automobile number One.

      1. My favorite museum is the Deutsches Museum von Meisterwerken der Naturwissenschaft und Technik in Munich.

        The name is awesome to begin with. And it’s got the coolest engineering stuff anywhere.

        1. Everything sounds awesome in German.

          1. Why German car outfit hasn’t made an exotic with six turbos just to call it ‘SexTurbo’ I have no idea.

    2. Mechanical engineers do. The idealized cycles describing IC engines tend to be named after the person who built the first working model.

      1. Right. The Diesel engine is still named after its inventor.

  5. I think it a little bit of stretch to say he was the inventor of email. In fact the “mail” program existed with the first version of Unix, officially released at about the same time but under development since the late 60s. Combined with UUCP, it allowed the sending of messages to hosts globally. Old timers will recall the UUCP maps that provided the necessary metrics for what hosts talked to each other; likewise the hostname!username address format.

    It was not until the very late 80s/early 90s that UUCP mail began to become obsolete and phased out as the vast majority of machines were not ‘on the internet’ before then. As more did starting having attached networking and a “smart” connected host, the arpa/internet addressing became common. However, all mail transfer agents (MTAs), ie, Sendmail, Postfix, Exim would convert between the @ and ! formats as necessary to deliver the message.

  6. Well, I got an email notification, but it ended up in my junk folder…

  7. I was also at UB in 1990 and using the VAX system to send messages, but I don’t remember if those were strictly “e-mails” nor do I recall the word “e-mail” coming into usage until a few years later.

  8. and within a couple of the vast majority of my written communications

    What was it Nick? Hours? Days? Beers? I burn to know.

    1. YEARS, he shouted via ALL CAPS.

  9. Send a hundred thousand letters to his funeral marked “MUST SEE!!!!! DONKEY PR0N”, “ENLArgE PENIES WITH AMAinG CREAM” and “PRINCE MUMBOJUMBO neDDs Your HeLP!!11!”

  10. Remembering the name Tesla is a good thing, but arguably his major contribution was to the science of alternating current, a technology that depends on the mathematics that Tesla brought to the table, in complete contrast with the DC that was pretty much the limit of experimentally-oriented Edison.

  11. Do you even remember the first emails you sent?

    Late 80s, Arpanet, defense contractor working for the Star Wars project.

  12. Well, I knew his name, but mostly because of the whole pile of shit that happened when Noam Chomsky tried to get everybody to believe email was invented in 1978 by a high school kid.

    1. Oh, and my first use of email would have been on Prodigy, probably talking with other people in the “The Next President” game in 1992.

  13. The “Marconi”? They should’ve called it the “Loomis”.

  14. I actually wrote an email system in APL for the Northwestern U Vogelback CDC6600 in 1978 ~ 1979 .

    ~ 1980 I was fired after 13 days for “insubordinate” use of IPSharp’s global APL based email system written by Leslie Goldsmith .

    I came up with my CoSy abbreviation for “Coherent Systems” back then when IPSA’s email addresses were limited to 32 bits .

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