Raymond Tomlinson, a pioneering computer programmer widely acknowledged as the driving force behind the modern of system of email the world knows today, died on Saturday. He was 74.
As the New York Times notes, Tomlinson spent the late 1960s and early 1970s at a research and development company, Bolt, Beranek and Newman, and worked on projects for the Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet designed for the Defense Department.
Tomlinson worked on the SNDMSG program, which let users send messages to one another. However, it was a closed system and only let users get messages on one computer they had to share.
According to the Times, Tomlinson altered SNDMSG to let users send messages from one host computer to another in the Arpanet system. Yet for this to work there needed to be a symbol that separated the user name from the host address. Tomlinson decided to use the @ sign, the Times reported, “because it did not appear in user names and did not have any meaning in the TENEX paging program used on time-sharing computers.”
The seemingly innocuous decision by Tomlinson would later reshape the way the modern world thinks of communication. As The Verge reported: “The decision lifted the humble symbol from obscurity to international icon — it even entered MOMA's collection in 2010. The fact it was little-used at the time made it appealing to Tomlinson, as it reduced ambiguity. Also, as he liked to say, ‘It's the only preposition on the keyboard.’”