The device was a “concoction of wires and things” that the 16-year-old Barbara Andersen didn’t totally understand. But when she picked it up, she could hear the faint voice of her high school boyfriend Ray Tomlinson on the other end.
At the time, in the mid- to late 1950s, her father insisted that Andersen couldn’t talk to her boyfriend on the house phone, which doubled as the phone for the family’s business, the White Holland House restaurant on Route 29 in Gloversville.
High on Globe’s MIT list
In 2011, to honor Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 150th anniversary, The Boston Gobe published a list of the 150 most significant innovators, inventions or ideas from MIT, its alumni, faculty and related people. Ray Tomlinson ranked fourth on that list. The top five were:
1. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web
2. Eric Lander, team leader for sequencing one-third of the Human Genome
3. William Shockley, inventor of the solid-state transistor
4. Ray Tomlinson, inventor of the “@” symbol used in email addresses
5. Phillip A. Sharp, founder of Biogen Idec
So Tomlinson, then 17, invented another way to call.
Now, some 60 years later, Andersen can’t remember how he made the device work, but it connected the teens across the three miles between their houses. They talked that way two or three times a week, she said.
“He was a regular person,” she said of the man later credited with creating e-mail. “He could just see a lot of things beyond what they were.”
In 1971, while working as a contractor on the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) — the forerunner of the modern Internet — Tomlinson was again looking to make a connection.
He wanted to send a message from one computer to another.
He identified the sender, himself, and then the computer he was sending from. He looked at the keyboard and decided to connect the two with @— a logical, elegant choice that did exactly what it needed to do, and no more.
He hit send, wheeled his chair across the room to the other massive computer, and opened the world’s first email.
“The invention of email came out of a personal desire for a more convenient and functional way to communicate,” Tomlinson said when he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame, according to a biography published by his employer, Raytheon BBN Technologies.
Tomlinson died on Sunday, March 5, at the age of 74. At the time, he was a principal engineer at Raytheon.
During his induction ceremony, according to the Raytheon obituary, he said he was often asked if he knew what he was doing when he sent that first email.
“The answer is: Yeah,” he said. “I knew exactly what I was doing. I just had no notion whatsoever about what the ultimate impact would be.”
What Tomlinson remembered about the content of that first email is remarkably similar to what people who knew him say about Tomlinson the man, not Tomlinson the inventor of email.
“There was nothing momentous about it,” he said.
And yet, it changed the world.
When his younger brother, Gary, talks about growing up with Tomlinson, he uses a lot of words like “regular” and “normal.”
“We were Boy Scouts, went to church, did all the normal things that boys do. Went swimming,” he said. “Just normal kid stuff.”
But Tomlinson always had an interest in how things worked, and in making them do more. When Gary bought a “nice little 7-inch” television for himself, Tomlinson took it apart and built an oscilloscope out of it.
“I don’t know why,” Gary said, laughing at the memory. “He did it because he could do it.”
His grades were so impressive in school that when the administrators of Broadalbin High School saw his final marks, they declared a Ray Tomlinson day at the school while he was still a student.
Gary’s wife, Carol, who grew up working with Ray at their parents’ jointly owned grocery store in Broadalbin, said Tomlinson was unfazed by the attention, or being named valedictorian, or all the awards he got at graduation.
“I don’t think it was a big deal to him,” she said. “Ray wasn’t the kind of man that things were a big deal to.”
In his senior yearbook, Tomlinson is a light-haired kid with a tight crew cut, dark glasses, and an easy smile. His affiliations include “Fulton County Music Festival” (he played trumpet), “Basketball”, “Class President”, “Hall Monitor”, “Golf”, and “Rocket Club.”
His senior quote reads: “The world is his college and he shall graduate with honors.” He later would graduate with an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and continued his studies at Massachuetts Institute of Technology.
Tomlinson grew up in the Vail Mills area of Broadalbin. His father was a butcher at the Potter-Tomlinson grocery store on Main Street, and as a kid he helped deliver groceries and run errands, along with Carol, who would later marry his brother.
He and Barbara Andersen broke up when she went to college, and fell out of touch. But when she read years later about his role in the creation of email, she was not surprised.
“It sounded just like him — that he would find another way to open the doors,” she said.
His work didn’t stop with the @ sign. In fact, said his partner Karen Seo, that was easy compared to many of the things he worked on throughout his career with Raytheon. But the solution was typical of him, she said: “It was just a logical, very elegant choice.”
“I guess the thing I would stress about Ray was he was an effective, efficient designer of solutions to problems,” she said, as she entertained a constantly full house of supporters this week. “He didn’t put too much complexity, he didn’t fuss and he was really insightful.”
He was also effortlessly likeable, according to those who knew him. Quick to laugh, and always at ease with himself and others. As his brother Gary put it: “There was nothing remarkable about his life except that he loved what he was doing.”
Seo was his partner for the past 10 years — “Just not long enough,” she said. She doesn’t use the word “partner” — she said she’s never had a good name. Significant other. Longtime companion. If more people knew it, she would prefer the term leman.
“It sounds like the fruit, but it actually means something more like sweetheart, lover,” she said.
The two began breeding sheep at a farm in the Boston area some years ago, trying to create a miniature breed that previously only existed in Europe and could not be directly imported to the U.S.
Tomlinson described the effort in an e-mail to Andersen in 2011: “Some of my spare time these days is occupied with my sheep project. Karen and I are bringing a new breed of sheep into the U.S.” It reminded her of conversations the 17-year-old Tomlinson would strike up with her infamously strict father about his turkey breeding program so many years ago in Broadalbin.
For the engineer, it was another problem to solve. He started whipping up inbreeding co-efficient software and programs to keep track of bloodlines, what the sheep have been eating, health histories. He set up the fields, the fences.
The farm now has 45 sheep and growing.
The idea to breed the sheep was Seo’s, she said. Making it work was Tomlinson’s realm.
“I don’t think any of this would have happened without him,” she said.
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