First Electronic Mail and the @ Sign
Ray Tomlinson b. 1941

In 1972 Ray Tomlinson revolutionized the digital age without knowing it. Tomlinson, a principal scientist at Bolt, Beranek and Newman, was developing an electronic mailbox program which allowed programmers working on the same computer to leave messages for one another. He had already written a mail program that was running on the ARPANET. This program had two parts: a program called SNDMSG for sending messages and another program called READMAIL for receiving messages. Mailboxes in the early '70s were simply files with a name. Users could add to the file, but they could not overwrite what was there. SNDMSG/READMAIL could not transmit messages from one machine to another.

Tomlinson had also worked on a mail program called CPYNET which could send and receive files, but did not allow users to add any information as SNDMSG did. Tomlinson decided to combine the two programs to allow a message to travel through the open network and become electronic mail.

In late 1971, Tomlinson was sending messages from one computer to another in his lab in Cambridge. His first e-mail announced to the rest of the group the existence of network e-mail and explained how to use it, including the use of the @ sign to separate the user's name from the host computer name.

Why did he do this? As Tomlinson says, "Mostly because it seemed like a neat idea."