Ray Tomlinson, an early internet pioneer credited with creating the first email system, passed away on Saturday (Mar. 5). Computer scientist Tomlinson was perhaps best known for creating the earliest email messaging system, and for choosing the “@” symbol as the character in email addresses.
Tomlinson’s death was first announced by another early internet pioneer, Vint Cerf, on Twitter, and has been confirmed to Quartz by a spokesperson for the Internet Society, a non-profit organization that helps define internet regulations.
The Internet Society set up the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012, and Tomlinson was one of its first inductees. Tomlinson, a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and MIT, worked at the research lab of Bolt Beranek and Newman (now part of defense firm Raytheon) in 1971, where he built an application that would allow messages to be sent between computers connected to ARPANET, the government research network that eventually morphed into the internet.
Tomlinson chose the “@” symbol to delineate between the email host site—like “gmail.com”—and the user of the email address, as it was not generally used by computers at the time, and it seemed most logical to him. He said, writing in a post on BBN’s site:
I am frequently asked why I chose the at sign, but the at sign just makes sense. The purpose of the at sign (in English) was to indicate a unit price (for example, 10 items @ $1.95). I used the at sign to indicate that the user was “at” some other host rather than being local.
He wasn’t able to recall what the first email said—it wasn’t quite as useful as the content of the first phone call—saying it was probably “something like QWERTYUIOP.” The email was sent from one computer to another right next to it, and it likely would’ve been hard to envision just what email would become at a time when there were only a few hundred computers connected together in the world.
There are now an estimated 205 billion emails sent every day, and although some companies are trying to kill the messaging system, it’s still the communication backbone of almost every industry across the world. And when Twitter launched, its founders chose to follow Tomlinson’s inspiration, using the “@” symbol as a way to reach out to other users. Even Slack, the corporate communication tool that wants to rid the world of email, uses the “@” to notify users to when they have been mentioned.
Tomlinson’s “@” will live on.