As you sit down to go through this morning’s crop of newsletters, chain letters, Viagra ads and notifications from Facebook that someone you know even less has also commented on the post of someone you hardly know, take a moment to remember Ray Tomlinson, the man who made it all possible.
At the time, there was such a thing as email, but it only worked on the same computer: a message could be sent from one user on the computer to another. But ARPAnet, first created in 1969, was about networking, and in late 1971 Tomlinson came up with an innovation that would allow email to be sent from a user at one computer to someone at another computer: networked email. He came up with an addressing standard to do it: the user login name “at” the computer’s name; he used the @ symbol for that, since it both made sense, and wasn’t used by other programs. That basic standard is still used today. The first email was sent from Tomlinson, sitting at the Model 33 teletype on one of the PDP-10s, to his account on the other PDP-10. Thus the first inter-machine email was sent to himself from himself, between two computers right next to each other, and he just rolled his chair from one teletype to the other to see whether it worked. The message had no real content: probably just some random characters, Tomlinson said later. “The first email is completely forgettable,” he said, “and, therefore, forgotten.” He didn’t even record the exact date.
In all seriousness, I can’t imagine my adult life as a blind person without email. I know that many a blind adult functioned quite successfully without it in years past, but it can’t truly be put into words how much easier it’s helped make literally just about everything.