How Ray Tomlinson Invented Email and Changed the World

How Ray Tomlinson Invented Email and Changed the World

Email is one of the most widely used and influential forms of communication in the modern world. It allows people to send and receive messages across different devices, networks, and locations. But who invented email and how did it become so popular?

The man behind this revolutionary invention was Ray Tomlinson, an American computer programmer who worked on the ARPANET system, the precursor to the Internet. In 1971, he implemented the first email program that could send messages between users on different hosts connected to ARPANET. He also introduced the @ sign to separate the user name from the name of their machine, a scheme that has been used in email addresses ever since.

In this blog post, we will explore the life and work of Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email. We will also look at some of the impacts and challenges of email in today’s society.

Early Life and Education

Raymond Samuel Tomlinson was born on April 23, 1941, in Amsterdam, New York. His family soon moved to the small village of Vail Mills, Broadalbin, where he attended Broadalbin Central School. He was interested in science and technology from a young age and enjoyed tinkering with radios and electronics.

He attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, where he studied electrical engineering and participated in the co-op program with IBM. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1963 and then entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to continue his education. At MIT, he worked in the Speech Communication Group and developed an analog-digital hybrid speech synthesizer for his master’s thesis, which he completed in 1965.

Career and Invention of Email

In 1967, Tomlinson joined Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), a technology company that was contracted by the US Department of Defense to work on the ARPANET project. ARPANET was a network of computers that could communicate with each other using packet switching technology. It was designed to facilitate research and information sharing among military and academic institutions.

Tomlinson worked on developing the TENEX operating system for ARPANET, as well as implementing various protocols and applications such as Telnet, FTP, and NCP. He also wrote a file transfer program called CPYNET that could copy files between different hosts on the network.

At that time, there was already a program called SNDMSG that could send messages to other users on the same computer. Tomlinson decided to modify SNDMSG so that it could also send messages to users on other computers. He used CPYNET to transfer the messages across the network and added the @ sign to indicate which host the message was destined for. For example, a message sent to tomlinson@bbn-tenexa would go to Tomlinson’s account on the BBN-tenexa host.

The first email Tomlinson sent was a test message that he described as insignificant, something like “QWERTYUIOP”. He did not preserve or document it, as he did not realize its importance at the time. He later commented that these “test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them.”

However, his invention soon caught on among his colleagues and other ARPANET users. Email became a convenient and efficient way of communicating across different locations and time zones. It also enabled new forms of collaboration and information exchange among researchers, academics, and professionals.

Tomlinson continued to work at BBN until his retirement in 2014. He contributed to many other projects and innovations related to networking, security, and software engineering. He also received numerous awards and honors for his invention of email, such as:

– The George R. Stibitz Computer Pioneer Award from the American Computer Museum in 2000
– The Webby Award from The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences in 2001
– The IEEE Internet Award from The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 2004
– The National Inventors Hall of Fame induction in 2012
– The Internet Hall of Fame induction in 2012
– The Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research in 2009 (shared with Martin Cooper)

Tomlinson passed away on March 5, 2016, at the age of 74 due to a heart attack.

Impacts and Challenges of Email

Email has had a profound impact on the world since its invention by Ray Tomlinson. It has become one of the most common and essential forms of communication for personal, professional, and educational purposes. It has also enabled new possibilities for social interaction, e-commerce, marketing, journalism, activism, and more.

According to , there were over 4 billion email users worldwide in 2020, sending and receiving over 300 billion emails per day. The number of email users is expected to grow to over 4.6 billion by 2025.

However, email also poses some challenges and risks for its users and society at large. Some of these include:

– Spam: Unsolicited or unwanted emails that are sent in bulk for commercial or malicious purposes. Spam can clog up users’ inboxes, waste their time and bandwidth, expose them to scams or malware, or compromise their privacy or security.
– Phishing: A form of cyberattack that uses fraudulent emails to trick users into revealing their personal or financial information or clicking on malicious links or attachments. Phishing can lead to identity theft, fraud, data breaches, or ransomware infections.
– Privacy: Email users may have their emails intercepted, monitored, or accessed by third parties without their consent or knowledge. This can happen due to hacking, surveillance, data leaks, or legal requests. Email users may also have their emails stored or analyzed by their email service providers for various purposes such as advertising or profiling.
– Etiquette: Email users may face challenges or misunderstandings when communicating via email due to factors such as tone, context, language barriers, cultural differences, or expectations. Email users may also have to deal with issues such as email overload, email anxiety , or email addiction .


Ray Tomlinson was a visionary computer programmer who invented email on the ARPANET system in 1971. He changed the way people communicate and collaborate across distances and domains. His invention has had a lasting impact on society but also poses some challenges that require awareness and responsibility from its users.

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