The man who gave the world e-mail Innovation: It was 25 years ago when Ray Tomlinson decided it might be possible to send a message from one computer to another.

December 30, 1996|By Sasha Cavender | Sasha Cavender,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Like so many great innovations, it happened by serendipity. Looking for one thing, people often discover another.

It was 1971, and Ray Tomlinson, a young computer engineer here was working on hardware, then software for a new system being developed at Bolt Baranek and Newman (BBN), a computer consulting company. A giant parallel project was building the ARPANET, under government contract, so research information could be exchanged simply and uniformly between a few American universities. Over time, this network would grow in size, function and popularity into something called the Internet.

Tomlinson decided to explore an idea that intrigued him, a way to send a message from one computer system to another.

"I came into work one morning, and he was grinning and pulling his beard, so I knew he'd done something," recalls longtime colleague Jerry Burchfiel, vice president of systems and engineering at BBN.

"Then he showed it to me, and I said, 'Don't tell anyone! This isn't what we're supposed to be working on!' "

"But," he adds, "it turned out to be the most popular thing we'd done."

Popular? Try epochal. What Ray Tomlinson had done was to create what would become the most profound new means of communication since the telephone: network electronic mail.

Other localized message systems were in existence elsewhere at this dawn of the high-tech age. But Tomlinson's program is what became e-mail as we know it today: the way the computer- ized world talks, researches, transacts business, gossips, spams and flames across the globe every day.

Tomlinson's first e-mail message, though, went only from one computer to another at BBN. Tomlinson sent it to himself.

"It worked!" he recalls, still sounding delighted and a bit bemused. "I logged into one machine, sent it to another, and there it was. We then called other people on the phone and told them to try it out." Soon, the program, "Read and Send Message," had electronic mail flying across the entire ARPANET.

It didn't hurt the program's development, recalls Burchfiel, that Larry Roberts, the director of the federal agency in charge of the ARPANET, loved Tomlinson's invention and started doing all his work by electronic mail.

"That forced all the researchers to get online and use it," he says, because Roberts was in charge of their funding.

That was 25 years ago. Today, 40 million people around the world communicate via e-mail, with more joining them every day. Ray Tomlinson is still at BBN, still working on finding simple solutions to complex problems.

BBN's offices -- brick, bland, fluorescent-lit -- feel more like an industrial warehouse than the place that helped build the gloriously rich global Internet.

And its work has expanded far beyond its government contracts; today its client roster includes Intel Corp., Miramax Films, Paramount, Polaroid, Xerox, AT&T, Avis and America Online.

Tomlinson's small office is typical of the place. Except for a large scientific model of what appears to be a molecule he's built from a kit, all color and creativity appear in the computers and minds of people who use them, not in the environment.

Just as this famed computer research center is less glamorous than one might expect, Tomlinson is not the wealthy inventor you might imagine he'd become from his role in creating what's become a global phenomenon. His invention was merely folded into the BBN's work for the government.

"Innovation is sometimes rewarded" at BBN, he states simply. "But not this innovation."

If the burly, bearded Tomlinson harbors any regrets about his fate, he doesn't betray them. Congenial but shy, he tends to shrug off his claim to fame.

"It's only important because it caught the public's fancy. E-mail is important -- I won't downplay that. But if Andy Warhol is right, I won't get another 15 minutes of fame," he laughs.

E-mail's popularity has certainly lasted, and by all indications will only continue to grow. Steve Harmon, senior investment analyst at Mecklermedia Internet Consulting in Westport, Conn., predicts e-mail will dominate all "text-based communication" within 15 years, and be "the backbone for voice and video mail -- in other words, carrying virtually all communications within 20 years.

"In the history of communications, e-mail will make fax machines and paper mail as quaint as the Pony Express," Harmon says.

Amazingly, though computers have grown increasingly sophisticated over the past 25 years, the format of e-mail has not changed much at all. Its signature element, for instance -- the symbol that's become an icon of our digital age -- was there from the start.

Tomlinson says he experimented with different symbols on his computer keyboard before choosingfor e-mail addresses. In retrospect, it makes sense. But it just as easily could have been something else.

"If I'd chosen the "#" or "*," then that would be an icon," says Tomlinson.

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