Anyone who’s ever sent an e-mail owes at least one keystroke and perhaps a thanks to Fulton County native Ray Tomlinson, the man who put the @ in e-mail.
Tomlinson, who grew up in the Vail Mills section of the town of Broadalbin, is credited by many as the man who invented e-mail.
In 1971 he was a computer programmer working for Bolt, Beranek and Newman, a high-tech research company in Cambridge, Mass., on the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. The ARPANET was the forerunner to the modern Internet. It was created by the Department of Defense as a means of linking different computers together.
At the time, mail, or file transfers, could only be sent between people using the same computer. Many users would typically use the same machine and could leave computer messages to the next user, but not to any other computer.
The ARPANET had the capability to transfer information between computers, but programs needed to be developed to enable that function. At the time few considered the possibility computers could be used for communication.
“It occurred to me that this was something this network would be good for,” Tomlinson said.
In his words he “glued together” an experimental file transfer program he had been working on with the computer’s capability to send messages and used the @ sign to separate the user from the machine he wanted the message sent to.
“That was what has now come to be called e-mail,” he said.
Use of the @ seemed obvious to him, but at first it was considered controversial.
“I’m fond of saying it’s the only preposition on the keyboard,” he said. “The idea of sending messages caught on right away but there was some discussion of whether the @ sign was the right character to use. Some people said it was kind of obscure and ‘techy’ and ordinary people are not going to want to use it; they would want something else, like the word ‘at.’ That ended up not being the case.”
The man who’s affected the communication habits of billions of people began life in a tiny corner of the Capital Region — a corner that still mostly has no idea what he did.
“Not too many people around here probably even know,” said Ray’s younger brother, Gary Tomlinson, who still lives in Broadalbin.
Ray’s anonymity might be aided by the fact there is more than one Tomlinson family in Fulton County. The multiple families have seemingly led to two of every Tomlinson, including Ray.
“There’s another Gary also, that I get mistaken for,” Gary Tomlinson said.
Raymond Samuel Tomlinson was born in Amsterdam in 1941. He graduated from Broadalbin Central High School in 1959.
While growing up he displayed his interest in technology early on.
“He wrecked a little seven-inch television I had one time and made an oscilloscope out of it,” Gary said.
Ray Tomlinson also had an inquisitive mind.
“I was always interested in how things worked and I would take things apart in the house that were nominally broken, and sometimes I broke them just so I could take them apart,” he said.
Ray went to college for electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. At the time he knew nothing about computer technology. During what today would be considered a semester internship at IBM, called at the time a co-op, he was exposed to a computer. He couldn’t take it apart so he read its operational manual and decided to write a program for it.
For some perspective, computer technology at the time was so primitive programs were written on stiff-paper punch cards.
“I wanted to know how the thing worked,” Ray said. “I didn’t know about assemblers and compilers and the tools one used for programming, so I actually manually punched holes in the IBM cards that I wanted to execute.”
After graduating from RPI in 1963, Ray went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received a master’s degree in 1965. From there he went to work for BBN. No riches, but some glory.
After Ray Tomlinson pioneered the first e-mail program, his programming career continued, mostly in obscurity, until the mid-1990s. It was when journalists and authors began to write about the growing popularity of e-mail and the 25th anniversary of e-mail and the ARPANET that he began to get phone calls looking for interviews.
“People starting asking where the @ sign came from and somebody remembered I wrote this program way back when,” he said.
After his role in the invention of e-mail was rediscovered, Tomlinson received a dizzying array of belated accolades.
In 2000 he was give the George R. Stibitz Computer Pioneer Award from the American Computer Museum. In 2001 he received a Webby Award from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences for lifetime achievement and RPI put him in its Alumni Hall of Fame.
In 2002 he received the Innovation Award from Discover Magazine. In 2004 he received the IEEE Internet Award and in 2009 he was awarded the Prince of Asturias award for scientific and technical research.
Although the recognition has been nice, it’s never translated into financial success for himself or for BBN.
“It’s something for the company to say to get attention, but I don’t think anybody’s ever given us a contract because we invented e-mail,” he said.
Jim Hendler, RPI’s Tetherless World professor of computer science, said Tomlinson’s e-mail innovation was the “killer app” that popularized using computers as a communication tool, which ultimately led to the creation of the Internet as it’s known today. He said RPI is proud of the many amazing scientific achievements of its alumni, but Ray Tomlinson has a special place among them, perhaps best illustrated by the following anecdote:
Hendler recalls a recent visit he and RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson made to another prestigious college. During the visit officials from the host school were listing the many achievements of its students, to which Jackson playfully replied, “Oh yeah? Well we did the @ sign.”
Broadalbin-Perth Central School Superintendent Steve Tomlinson (no relation to Ray Tomlinson, at least not the Ray Tomlinson who invented e-mail) said his district is working on a project to highlight the achievements of past alumni, including students from the Broadalbin and Perth central schools. He said Ray Tomlinson provides a powerful example to his students and they will all know about his role in inventing e-mail before the end of the school year.
Gary Tomlinson, who’s retired from his career as a machinist, said his brother will probably never retire from his work with computers.
Ray said he continues to enjoy programing and is working on new programs for the U.S. Navy. He gets back to Fulton County a few times a year. His advice to people growing up in his hometown is simple.
“I think you have to find something you love, if you can. Not everybody does that. But if you do, you’re going to be so much more effective, so much more productive. You’re just going to enjoy your life a lot more,” he said.