ray tomlinson

Remembering Ray Tomlinson: The reason email is “where it’s @”

Ray Tomlinson, widely known as the inventor of email, passed away at age 74 over the weekend. An internet innovator, Tomlinson created the first person to person email in 1971 and is responsible for the “@” in all of our email addresses.

Movable Ink co-founder and CEO Vivek Sharma remembers Tomlinson as a pioneer and a visionary. “In an age of Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, it’s easy to forget the first digital communication medium: email.  Today, email is used by over 2.5 billion of the world’s population. Its openness and simplicity has outlasted many other technologies that have come after it. Email is a lightweight communication platform, an implicit social network, and a personal database all wrapped into one. I am saddened by Ray Tomlinson’s passing and we wish to honor him today for connecting the world.”

Tomlinson wasn’t too far beyond his college days at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and MIT when he had the historic breakthrough that would revolutionize interpersonal communication – and, later, marketing.

Although messages could be sent electronically at that time, they could only be shared on a very limited network. That changed when, as an engineer at what was then Bolt, Beranek and Newman and is today BBN Technologies, Tomlinson was tinkering on his own with ARPANET, the predecessor of today’s Internet, on ways to connect distant colleagues who tended to not answer their phones.

“This idea had been around for several years, of sending messages to other people on the same computer,” Tomlinson said in a 2012 interview. “I saw an opportunity to extend that to users on other computers. I combined the SNDMSG program we had, which was used within a single computer, and a little experimental file-transfer program I had made.”

His first messages didn’t travel very far. “The keyboards were about 10 feet apart,” he told NPR. “I could wheel my chair from one to the other and type a message on one, and then go to the other, and then see what I had tried to send.”

Today, there are an estimated 2.5 billion email users around the world.

“I knew exactly what I was doing,” he said, when he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012. “I just had no notion whatsoever of what the ultimate impact would be. What I was doing was providing a way for people to communicate with other people.” You can watch Tomlinson’s remarks at his Internet Hall of Fame induction ceremonies here.

As for how he incorporate the “@” symbol into email addresses, CNN reported this week, “Tomlinson had seen a mailbox protocol he’d thought was too complex. In its place, he hacked together a simpler plan that included such now-commonplace concepts as the “@” sign—to denote the location of the correspondents—and the naming of the fields.”

His impact on the marketing industry can’t be overstated. It created an opportunity for brands to communicate with the consumer in an unprecedented and personal way that—to this day—results in the highest ROI among marketing channels.

His passing was noted in a March 6 Tweet from, very appropriately, the Twitter account of one of the worlds’ best-known email brands: Gmail: “Thank you, Ray Tomlinson, for inventing email and putting the @ sign on the map. #RIP.”