The Origins of the Email


The tech world was saddened following the news of Ray Tomlinson’s death last month, the American programmer widely credited with inventing network electronic email and choosing the ‘@’ sign to connect usernames with destination addresses. Today, as we find ourselves longing for the latest bit of technology at every turn, we ask, “Where did it all begin?” We take a look back to the very first email and how it sparked one of the most influential marketing tools around.

The first network email

Whilst working as an engineer at Massachusetts research company BBN Technologies in 1971, Tomlinson came up with the idea of electronic messages that could be sent from one network to another. The key component was the invention of the Arpanet, the Internet’s predecessor. Tomlinson was investigating ways to use it when he sent the first message between two machines, sat literally side by side.

It was at this moment the ‘@’ symbol was effectively saved from extinction. Tomlinson chose the “at” sign due to its scarcity in other systems, but it was also logical to indicate that a user was ‘at’ another host as opposed to being local.

You might have assumed the first message ever sent and its contents would have been a somewhat memorable moment, even if it was “QWERTY”. But it was quite the opposite. Tomlinson revealed the initial test messages were entirely forgettable, but gave distinct instructions about separating the username from host computer name with the “at” sign.

No SPAM! But no HTML…

So what did the early years of email look like? Well, current uses are not as far from their first uses as we may think. With such low volumes and ISP SPAM filters yet to be developed, the main difference was SPAM was yet to exist. But before we get too excited imagining a time where SPAM email was unheard of, HTML was also a thing of the future. So instead of images and fancy font styles we see in our inbox today, plain text was the only option until the 1990s.

Emails influence on modern business

With more than 4 billion accounts in existence and 200 billion emails sent every day, it’s safe to say that email is heavily relied upon, both in people’s personal lives and in business. Significant cost and time savings made email a key player in steering the direction of modern business and facilitating the growth of technology.

What’s more impressive is despite the emergence of other communication channels, in particular social media, email is still going strong. And let’s not forget, the ‘@’ symbol plays as much of a critical role today in internet communication services such as Twitter, as it did 45 years ago in Tomlinson’s office. So next time you shoot off an email with a link to the “it” video of the week, take a second to remember the wily inventor who made it all possible. Good on ya, Ray.