As much as it has been blamed for productivity problems and as much as many now wish to kill it, the world would have probably been a very different place had e-mail not existed. And so it is with a heavy heart that the technology community who owes much of its existence and growth to e-mail bid farewell to Ray Tomlinson, credited for having created e-mail. And even if e-mail does become simply a piece of history, it, as well as Tomlinson, will always be present in the mindsets and conventions we take for granted to day, like the now ubiquitous “@” sign.
While people were indeed able to communicate by computers and technology before 1971, when the e-mail was first conceived, none offered the convenience that e-mail promised back then. ARPANET, the progenitor of today’s Internet, was still too nascent to be widespread. People could send messages to each other via computers but only on the same local network. And telephone communication required both parties to be present at the same time.
E-mail, then, offered the convenience of voicemail but without the hefty fees. While it wouldn’t take off tens of years later when personal computing and the Internet would become more ubiquitous, it already planted the roots. In particular, Tomlinson would choose a then odd symbol on the keyboard that would become the conventional symbol for addressing people, the “at sign”. Tomlinson narrated that he chose it because it was a rarely used character on the keyboard and was the only single character preposition. Originally, the “@” was used in accounting and commerce to mean “at site” or “at rate”.
E-mail would then become a major tool in communication, first within the tech community and eventually spreading to the world at large. Today, it is almost taken for granted or seen as an antiquated system. Given its significance, importance, and widespread use, it will take a lot more time to get it out of our systems. While services like Slack or even social networking might eventually replace e-mail, at least the “@” sign will still linger on a lot longer after the world’s last e-mail has been sent.