Remembering Raymond Tomlinson, the Father of Email

The computer engineer who sent the first piece of electronic mail died on Saturday. He was 74.

Raymond Tomlinson, pictured in 2009 (Felix Ordonez / Reuters)

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.”

But there were still aspects of all the attention that tickled him. For one thing, he didn’t seem swept up in email (and inbox-related guilt) the way so many others were. Tomlinson told me he could go an entire day or weekend without checking it, and not think twice.  “That has to be a human feature,” he said, referring to the cultural infatuation with inbox zero. “Email does not produce guilt.”

He also chuckled a bit at the obsession with the @ sign—yes, he was the one to put it in the email address, but it just made sense to him. “I am amused when somebody tries to illustrate the first email using a modern keyboard and a finger reaching for the ‘2’ key,” he told me. “Wrong key! The @ was on the ‘P’ key.”

Tomlinson influenced tech history in a profound way, but he was a self-professed Luddite. He didn’t have a cellphone and had only just signed up for Facebook when I talked to him. But he also believed in the persistence of the technology he helped usher in.

“It’s hard to imagine how [new platforms or apps] would change things in the same dimension that email already satisfies,” he told me. “If you're looking for ways of getting quick communication, maybe texting is the way to go. People can’t walk these days without having one hand balancing a smartphone. If that’s the way people are going to live, it is the case that something that vibrates in their hand is going to get their attention more quickly than an email. If people decide that’s the way they want to go, that they want to spend their lives carrying smartphones around, well, okay, email will not be quite as important to them. But if you want to do something else, like go swimming, it’s hard to carry your smartphone. Or you could probably get a waterproof one.”

But Tomlinson also knew his invention might not always exist in the way we know it today. Such is the nature of all technology, after all. “It may be called something else, it may be embedded within some other app,” he said. “But I don’t think it's going away.”