Inventor of E-Mail, A New Discourse
By Judth Newman
In a way that was unimaginable 10 years ago, e-mail structures our days. For many of us, it’s the first thing we check in morning and the last thing we check at night; throughout the workday, the words “you’ve got mail” have an almost gravitational pull. As a form of communication, e-mail allows us to be incredibly efficient – answered 20 e-mails takes minutes, whereas answering 20 phone calls can eat up the whole day – yet remain informal and friendly. It brings vital information and trivial gossip, political activism and jokes. Who knew there were so many lethal viruses that might cause your computer to explode, or former Nigerian generals who need foreign business partners to invest their fortunes?
E-mail is the back fence of the computer age, and we’re all leaning over and chatting.
A quiet, deliberate, extraordinarily modest man, computer engineer Ray Tomlinson wrought this change in society. In 1971, people working off the same mainframe could leave each other messages, which could then be picked up by recipients at any time. Tomlinson made one key move that paved the way for the high-speed communication that has transformed our lives: He wrote a small software program that combined the file-transfer protocols of one program (CPYNET) with another program’s send-and-receive message capabilities (SNDMSG), allowing a message to be sent from one mainframe to another -- at a time when computers were just beginning to be linked via Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet.
Surely he had a “Eureka! E-mail!” moment? Actually, I’m pretty vague on when the first message happened,” Tomlinson says, stroking his beard. He sits amid a tangle of wires in his computer-and-gizmo-filled office at BBN Technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he has worked for 35 years. He is a mountainous man with a soft voice, yet his words are staccato and precise. “New software has bugs in it, so there were a lot of test messages. I would type something in, and nothing would happen. And when something finally did go through, I might try a longer message, and then there was something wrong there. So it was a gradual process of debugging.” The Guinness Book of Records says the first e-mail that moved from one computer to another read “QWERTYUIOP” – the keys on the third tier of the keyboard. Tomlinson himself doesn’t remember what that first message said. “Later, a guy suggested that I better make something up, something more interesting. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.” When the program finally worked, Tomlinson sent a message around to staffers: They could now send messages to people on other computers. “So,” he says, “E-mail kind of announced itself.”
“When Ray came up with this electronic host-to-host e-mail demo over a weekend, my first reaction was, maybe we shouldn’t tell anybody,” says Jerry Burchfiel, a network architect at BBN who was working at the time with Tomlinson on a new operating system for ARPA, the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. “[E-mail] didn’t fit in under the contract description for the work we were doing. But as soon as Larry Roberts [then head of computer and communications R&D for ARPA] saw it, he loved it and forced his contractors to use it. Me, I thought, ‘Well that’s cute, you can move [mail] from system to system.’ I was like everyone else, I had no idea it would take over the world.”
Once Tomlinson figured out how to move mail from one computer to another, his next task was to make sure the message went to the right machine. He needed a symbol that would separate the name of the individual from the host machine where that person was working. He insists that the symbol he picked - @ - was not particularly inspired but rather the obvious choice. “You wouldn’t use a single letter or number, because that would be confusing. It had to be something brief, because terseness was important. As it turns out, @ is the only preposition on the keyboard. I just looked at it, and it was there. I didn’t even try any others.” Nonetheless, what the peace sign was to the flower children of the 1960’s @ is to the wired generation.
Tomlinson also insists that the little piece of code and choice of symbol that made him a legend were no big deal, technically speaking. “What gives me the greatest pleasure is devising solutions to very hard problems in complex systems,” he says. “The harder the problem, the more I like it.”
Tomlinson’s genius for problem solving has made him, as former BBN colleague Harry Forsdick puts it, a “silent warrior” in the struggle to build the Internet. “He is so quiet and self-deprecating, but he’s been the role model for young programmers at BBN for years. He’s the best coder I’ve ever seen, bar none,” adds Forsdick, who is now vice president of advanced technology at Genuity, an Internet service provider. “And the thing is, he’s passionate about the technology. Almost all guys with his seniority and experience go into management. Ray was never interested; all he ever wanted was to stay at the top of the technology game.”
Which is precisely what he has done. He may go down in history for a tiny program that took him about a week to write, but in his career he has tackled project after project that has been integral to the development of the personal computer and the exponential growth of the Internet. For example, he was the key player in the creation of several crucial network protocols, including telnet, which allows users to access remote computers, and TCP/IP, which is the basis of all Internet communication, from file transfers to chat groups. In 1980, he designed Jericho, a personal computer that allowed BBN to develop artificial intelligence programs. “He took chip sets and built an entire computer, then proceeded to program it all,” says Forsdick. “It was an amazing tour de force of software and hardware. He has always been the ultimate trouble-shooter, whether it was fixing the dishwasher in your kitchen or solving some esoteric problem in microcode.”
Sometimes, friends say, his focus on dissecting and solving a technical problem can create problems. Friends are terrified to drive with him because he drives like he codes. Every bit of space must be accounted for and time managed efficiently. He weaves in and out of a traffic jam relentlessly, filling in the tiniest gap with his car, if only to get to his destination two minutes sooner.
Forsdick recalls an incident years ago, when Tomlinson’s elder daughter was learning to drive, and Ray and his wife had gone away for the weekend. “They came home to find that she had basically driven their car through the garage door.” Forsdick says. “When Ray and I talked about this, not once did he say, ‘I wonder why that happened?’ or ‘Damn that Brooke, I wish she’d be more careful.’ It was, ‘Now, how do I repair the door?’”
Growing up as the eldest of three boys in the tiny town of Vale Mills, New York, Tomlinson was obsessed with taking things apart to figure out how they worked. When he was 12, his mother tried to channel this tendency to disembowel household appliances by buying him a radio kit – which fostered a passion for electronics. Although his parents recognized his talents, they also sent him the message that to get cocky about those talents would be unseemly. Tomlinson remembers, with painful vividness, the time his father chewed him out for tactlessly contradicting one of his science teachers. “He made me realize that being superior in a certain way does not elevate me above someone else.”
Tomlinson majored in electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he and his friends spent their spare time rewiring the dorm and adding free phones. As an intern at IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1960, he wrote his first software program “after reading a manual. I didn’t know there were assemblers and compilers, but I understood that if I put holes in cards, things would happen.”
In graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1960’s, he was supposed to be working on voice recognition, then a hybrid project that combined analog processing by electrical circuits with analysis and logic processing executed by computer. Instead, he got sucked further and further into writing computer programs that had nothing to do with his dissertation. “The computer was my salvation, but it was sort of my downfall too.” Tomlinson explains. “I was spending all my time on computers and not so much time going to classes.”
Finally, his advisor suggested that he might want to consider ditching the dissertation and pay a visit to BBN. He took a job in the Research Computer Center, and he’s been there ever since.
Has Tomlinson profited from the staggering contribution he has made to our culture? The man who must personally take some blame for the rise of first-class postage (they’ve got to make up that lost revenue somehow) drives an Acura Integra, just bought a modest townhouse in Woburn, Massachusetts, and owns no stocks other than those in his 401(k). When it is suggested to him that the average person might feel a bit gypped not to have cashed in on an idea that has brought riches to so many others, he looks bemused. This is not the question that interests him. What interests him is the math behind that idea.
“It’s kind of interesting to contemplate what fraction of a cent I would have to get on the use of every @ sign to exceed Bill Gate’s fortune. It’s a very tiny amount – like .000001 cent or something. Especially with the amount of spam out there. Of course, then I’d be praying for spam, instead of condemning it.”
For Tomlinson, satisfaction simply isn’t measuring in dollars. “I think a lot of about people who are sick who use e-mail to find a community of support,” he says. Recently, he got a message from a woman whose brother was gravely ill with a rare mental disease; her sister-in-law was able to cope because she found an e-mail list of people whose spouses had the same illness. “The woman just wanted to say thanks,” Tomlinson says quietly. “I said, ‘You’re welcome.’”
Reprinted with permission of Ray Tomlinson and Discover copyright 2002 Disney Publishing Worldwide. All rights reserved.
“He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.” -- Herman Melville