Ray Tomlinson, the Man Who Invented Email in Cambridge, Dead at 74

The MIT alum is the reason why email addresses have ‘@’ signs.

Ray Tomlinson, the man who invented email in Cambridge in 1971, has died of an apparent heart attack. He was 74.

A native of Brampton, New York, Tomlinson graduated from MIT in 1965 before taking a job at Cambridge’s Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN), which had a government contract to work on the Arpanet, forerunner of the Internet. There, Tomlinson created a “Send Message” program, allowing for electronic mail across the ARPANET.

“A true technology pioneer, Ray was the man who brought us email in the early days of networked computers,” Raytheon spokesperson Mike Doble said in a statement. (Raytheon acquired BBN in 2009.)

Unfortunately, Tomlinson’s first email, sent to himself on another computer, is lost to the spam folder of history. “When he showed it to me,” longtime friend and BBN colleague Jerry Burchfiel told Forbes in 1998, “he said, ‘Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.'”

“It wasn’t an assignment at all, he was just fooling around; he was looking for something to do with ARPANET,” Raytheon spokesperson Joyce Kuzman told the Guardian. Soon, DARPA, the government agency that oversaw the ARPANET, would embrace email as an essential communication tool.

It was Tomlinson who decided to put the “@” sign in email addresses, telling Forbes: “I thought about other symbols, but @ didn’t appear in any names, so it worked.”

Check out this delightfully 90s passage on email from that Forbes profile:

It’s become the new ‘kitchen table’ for far-flung family members. To some it’s as intimate a medium as the scented ink and writing paper of the Victorian era. But not all of this change and growth makes Tomlinson happy. He reminisces about the collegial chaos of the early years, and hates the flames, spams, and schemes that abuse the system’s open nature. As email becomes rooted deeper and deeper in modern life, a certain structure—for better or worse—is an inevitable part of its explosive growth. Tomlinson acknowledges this without resentment. ‘But,’ he says a little wistfully, ‘I miss the anarchy.’

Almost makes you wish your Internet still came on discs in the mail. Almost.