Ray Tomlinson who died last week made it clear that he was working outside of his day job remit when he pursued the possibility of communicating between the available computer hosts. He pushed it through because “It was such a neat idea.” Working on ARPANET the precursor to the internet he put two programs together in 1971 so that files could be sent to time-sharing computer users. The first email was simply a test and the content promptly forgotten because as he said himself it wasn’t very memorable. Ray was quite a modest type and although proud of his achievement played it down somewhat. He joked that E-mail could now become email as the hyphen wasn’t necessary anymore after all this time. He utilised the @ sign which had already been in use although in this new ‘killer app’ it separated local from global and designated the person to person communication.
In his Internet Hall of Fame induction in 2012 he said he’d often been asked if he knew what he was doing back then which raised a laugh. He then went onto say that of course he did but had no idea of the impact it had until 1996 when a reference librarian (a couple of years after the 25th anniversary of ARPANET) asked him if she could include him in her monthly newsletter. Six months later he received an email and the subject was “Thank you Thank you Thank you”. She informed him that she had a relative suffering from a rare illness and through the communication available through email had been able to contact and gain information and support from others who had loved ones suffering form the same disease. Only then did he realise that the email had allowed normal people across the world to establish and access information that could help them with really important issues in their lives.
In photographs Ray looks like a cuddly teddy bear and described himself as a part-time juggler, photographs prove this. However his work in a very direct way has given freedom and succour to millions.