Unsung innovators: Ray Tomlinson, who put the @ sign in every e-mail address
Computerworld - In the early 1970s, Ray Tomlinson worked out one of the earliest e-mail systems. That's cool, but here's something more intriguing. He is actually the guy responsible for the "At" sign (@) in every e-mail address today.
Tomlinson, a shy sort, says he is just fine with his name not being a household name. "In fact, I'm pretty happy being unsung."
Tomlinson today is a principal engineer at the Cambridge, Mass.-based BBN Technologies. But he was just starting out at the company when he came up with the e-mail system and address notation. Just 29 years old and a junior employee then, Tomlinson says he was supposed to be doing something else and at the time wasn't sure whether he should share what he came up with.
"You see, I wanted to build the first e-mail system to allow messages to be sent from one person" on one computer over a network to someone who was using an entirely different computer, Tomlinson says. He points out that, at the time, e-mail was possible only between people using terminals connected to the same computer.
"I was trying to denote on which computer a user had his mailbox because his username would already be unique on that computer," he explains. In other words, he needed a username structure that had to be unique across all computers.
But it did leave "several" punctuation marks, he says.
So how did the "At" symbol win its place in e-mail history? "Of all the available punctuation marks, only the "At" sign had a sense of place," he says. "I could have used the "On" sign or the "Of" sign, but there are no such characters. So the at-sign had to be it."
Tomlinson, a native of New York state, is in his 40th year working @ BBN.
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