Ray Tomlinson, inventor of the ubiquitous @ sign for emails, deserves more credit

His death this week has gone by little noticed beyond the industry in which he worked but his contribution has touched the lives of all of us

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2016, 11:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2016, 11:28pm

Society so values communications that the inventors of new ways of imparting information are remembered down the generations. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, Samuel Morse’s telegraph, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Guglielmo Marconi’s radio were life-changing as much for their creators as the people who benefitted from them. It is therefore baffling that the recent death of Ray Tomlinson, the American computer programmer who created electronic messaging and the @ sign that is so much a part of the internet, has gone by little noticed beyond the industry in which he worked. He was modest about his achievements, but deserves greater recognition than being a mere footnote in the history of technological development.

Email, after all, was instrumental in helping launch the digital information revolution. It eliminated the uncertainty of traditional postal services by delivering messages at lightning speeds directly to recipients. The small talk of phone conversations was no longer necessary, a preservable record was created and the sender and recipient did not have to be present. From the time of widespread adoption in the 2000s, it changed the way businesses and professionals worked.

Tomlinson, 74, came up with the idea in 1971 while working on a forerunner of the internet, Arpanet. Its significance was not immediately apparent; his aim was to improve communication between those working on the project elsewhere in the US. The @ symbol was chosen to designate a message destined for someone at a location that was not local.

The invention has been blamed for the death of the art of letter-writing and post offices and a decline in language standards. Reading and answering messages, much of it spam, eats into the working day and jobs can require responses from home or when on holiday. But the economic benefits of efficiency are enormous, while personal correspondence and keeping in touch has been similarly revolutionised. Tomlinson has been inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame, but he deserves more.