HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
March 26, 2007, Herald Journal

The inventor of today’s e-mail


Sending an e-mail is such a common part of our lives today that we probably don’t think much of it anymore.

I began to wonder out of the billions (trillions?) of e-mails that have been sent, what was the first network e-mail message and who sent it?

The name of the person we need to thank for e-mail is Raymond S. Tomlinson.

Tomlinson was born in Amsterdam, NY in 1941.

In 1971, Tomlinson, along with a group of other programmers, was working with a computer program called TENEX, which was a computer time-sharing system that ran on Digital PDP-10 computers.

When I first began to research this topic, I looked up the definition for “electronic mail” and was referenced back to the 1840s and inventor Samuel Morse’s use of his Morse Code – which technically was how mail messages were first sent or “keyed” by electronically coded means.

In the 1930s, Telex terminal machines, also called ‘Teletypes,” were physically connected to each other over the same network and could send messages between them.

These machines were used mostly by governments, corporations, newspapers and the military.

The terminal’s message output was printed on paper. The early teletype machines looked a lot like a typewriter.

Telephone companies provided access to the network for the inter-connection of Telex terminal machines. A telecom term used for this was a “Teletype Wide-area eXchange” or (TWX) line.

Having worked for a telephone company, I remember maintaining some of those TWX (pronounced “Twix”) lines for teletype terminals connected at the local police stations, industries, and businesses in the area.

It was during the late 1960s and early 1970s that the US government was working on its own inter-connected network, which was called the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network or “ARPANET.” As you know, this evolved into what we now call the Internet.

In 1971, Tomlinson was also working on improving an “inter-user” mail program called “SNDMSG.” At this time, a user’s mail was a simple message file. This “message file” could be accessed only on the same mainframe computer network.

Tomlinson thought about another program called “CPYNET,” which he knew could be used along with the SNDMSG program to transmit these “message-files” to remote networks.

Working with CPYNET protocols that transferred files, Mr. Tomlinson was able to incorporate it with the SNDMSG program code. He got these mail-file “messages” appended to determine “local” mail from mail destined to a “remote,” or another host’s network.

Tomlinson decided to use the “@” symbol to indicate the mail address was “at” some other host network – that the message was not on the “local” or the same computer network. Using this symbol, he was able to connect the user name with the destination address.

By programming the code using the “@” symbol, he was able to direct a mail message to be sent out to a totally separate computer system over the ARPANET.

The first e-mail message was sent in late 1971 between two different computers that were side-by-side on the same floor. The network connection was through the APRANET.

Tomlinson says that the first e-mail message he sent likely contained the word “QUERTYIOP” or similar.

That first e-mail message was historic.

When Tomlinson was asked by Jupitermedia Corporation reporter Sharon Gaudin, in a 2002 interview if “. . .high-tech research is as exciting to him as it was back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when he was working on ARPANET and e-mail,” Tomlinson replied “Yeah, the subjects are different . . .this may be more exciting because there’s so much happening all at once. We have this wonderful tool – the Internet. It’s been around in one form or another since about ‘74. That’s when the first networks were hooked together. It’s just a wonderful resource. Think of ways to hook things together. Think of ways to get information.”

The complete 2002 interview with Ray Tomlinson is at (http://itmanagement.earthweb.com/entdev/article.php/1408411).

What do I think are the downsides of e-mail? “Unsolicited e-mail,” “spam,” and “junk e-mail.” Also, watch out for those “scammers” out there that will try to get money from you.

If I do not know who it is sending me the e-mail – especially if there’s an attachment or they want me to click on an unknown link inside the e-mail message itself – I delete it.

For a more in-depth explanation on how e-mail works, visit (http://computer.howstuffworks.com/e-mail.htm).

If you want to read more about Tomlinson and how he created the e-mail we use today, visit (http://www.bbn.com/docs/presskit/firste-mail-04.01.05.pdf) for more information.

To see the photograph of where the first off-network e-mail took place, visit (http://openmap.bbn.com/~tomlinso/ray/ka10.html). There, you will see the two computers which were connected via ARPANET, that handled the first e-mail message as we know it today.

Ray Tomlinson has his own web-link along with personal comments about e-mail, at (http://openmap.bbn.com/~tomlinso/ray/home.html).