Raymond Tomlinson, the man who is widely credited with having sent the first email, died on Saturday. He was 74 years old. Tomlinson was a principal scientist at BBN Technologies, one of the research arms of Raytheon, which sent me this statement on Monday:
It is with great sadness we acknowledge the passing of our colleague and friend, Ray Tomlinson. A true technology pioneer, Ray was the man who brought us email in the early days of networked computers. His work changed the way the world communicates and yet, for all his accomplishments, he remained humble, kind and generous with his time and talents. He will be missed by one and all.
I had the opportunity to interview Tomlinson in December, and we exchanged several emails afterward, as part of a story I was reporting about the future of email. In 1971, he conceived of email as a way for computer engineers to send messages to one another across a limited network. “The idea of having a computer at your home at the time was way out of the question,” he told me. “It would take at least six more years ... At the time, the smallest [computer] was probably as big as a couple of little dorm room refrigerators.”
At one point during one of our interviews, I asked Tomlinson if he ever marveled at the impact of what he’d created. You invented email. Email! He seemed to shrug.
“I've gotten comfortable with the fact that everybody wants to know the origins of email,” he told me. “I think when I first realized that something interesting had happened was probably in 1994. There was a 25th anniversary of the ARPANET celebration and ... somebody asked the question, ‘Where did email come from?’ I remembered that I had done this little program back in 1971. People looked back and nobody could find anything that predated it. I hadn’t realized it up until that point.”