Ray Tomlinson, a renowned computer programmer, is credited as the inventor of email on the ARPANET system, the predecessor to the Internet. He revolutionized the way businesses operate and people communicate throughout the world.
Tomlinson was born in Amsterdam, New York on April 23, 1941. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York in 1963. During his time in college, he also held an internship at IBM. He received his master’s degree in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1967. After graduate school, Tomlinson joined the company of Bolt, Beranek and Newman (now BBN Technologies) as a principal engineer, where he worked for the remainder of his life.
During the early 1960s, the network technology to send messages from one user to another user at the same computer existed. As Tomlinson began work at BBN in 1967, he helped to develop ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. In 1971, he developed ARPANET's first application for network email by combining the SNDMSG and CPYNET programs, allowing messages to be sent to users on other computers. To separate the user from their machine or electronic destination, he used the @ key, thus establishing the email address. User@host became the norm for email addresses and remains so today.
For a few decades after Tomlinson’s invention, email was still a novelty. Computers were too large and expensive. Once the personal computer became more popular and affordable in the late 1980s and early 1990s, online services, such as America Online followed, and email became widespread. By 1996, electronic mail was being used more than postage mail in the U.S. Today, there are nearly 4 billion email accounts, with half the world’s population using email. "I see email being used, by and large, exactly the way I envisioned. In particular, it's not strictly a work tool or strictly a personal thing," Tomlinson said. "Everybody uses it in different ways, but they use it in a way they find works for them."
In 2000, Tomlinson received the George R. Stibitz Computer Pioneer Award from the American Computer Museum. In 2001, he was honored with a Webby Award from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences and was inducted into the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame. In 2002, Discover Magazine awarded him its Innovation Award. In 2004, he earned the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Internet Award. He was named the Prince of Asturias Award Laureate for Technical and Scientific Research in 2009. In 2011, he was honored with the Eduard Rhein Kulturpreis Cultural Award. He is ranked number four on the MIT list of top 150 innovators and ideas from MIT.
Tomlinson was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012. He died from a heart attack on March 5, 2016 in his home in Lincoln, Massachusetts at the age of 74.