Ray Tomlinson: The man who gave us the @ sign
I love reading the obituaries in the New York Times (NYT). I stand at the kitchen counter and munch cheese and blueberries like a busy squirrel, while I peek into the lives of others. You can call me a voyeur if you like, I won’t deny it. I enjoy pulling aside the curtain and doing my daily death count.
I’m not alone. I know there are a few of you who do the same.
Why do we do it?
I’m sure there are a number of reasons. Maybe it’s to do with getting old and a bit of gloating that we’re still alive. Maybe it’s simple curiosity about our neighbors. Or maybe some people read obits to wallow in a wave of nostalgia about a fading era.
There are two reasons why I read the NYT obits.
Firstly because an obit is a story. It’s the story of a life, usually an interesting, quirky or adventurous life. Or a life with accomplishments. Or a life that enriched our own. And the best thing of all is that an obit has closure. You don’t have to wait for the next installment of the story, you can binge read through the entire season and know how the story ends. As you can see, I’m a big Netflix fan.
The second reason I read the obits is because I like to reverse engineer things. I like to look backwards and work out how something came about. An obit lets me do that. Not always, but sometimes, between the so-and-so did this and that; there are glimpses of why they did what they did. What drove them, what they felt when they did what they did. This, dear friends, is gold for a writer. It’s motive that drives us all, and here, laid out in black and white is real-life motive.
Although I have to say it always saddens me when I read about the death of a young person. That’s just not right. Of course the definition of young changes as I get older.
A few days ago I read the obit of Ray Tomlinson.
The headline was, “The man who put the @ sign in email.”
If you’re reading this online, you probably sent an email today, right? Well, Tomlinson was the first man to send an email from one computer to another. He was also the first man who used the @ sign to separate the name of the person sending the message from the computer the message was being sent from.
It was 1971, a time when computers were the size of houses. They needed massive fans to cool them and computer scientists had to go around sniffing for burning wires when things went wrong.
Tomlinson, who, with his beard and horn-rimmed glasses, looked like a young Santa Claus, wrote and sent his very first email on a U.S. Government computer network called ARPANET. It was a forerunner to the Internet.
“The total number of people who could communicate in this way was no more than a thousand, maybe two thousand,” Tomlinson said in a later interview.
In 2012, during his acceptance speech for his induction into the Internet Hall of Fame, he described how, more than twenty years after sending his first email, he finally realized the impact of his discovery.
“A reference librarian wanted to interview me about email. I communicated with her by email of course…. Then about six months later, I got this email from her. The subject was ‘Thank you, than you, thank you.’ She was thanking me for having established a way in which she could communicate with other individuals about a rare disease a relative of hers was suffering from.” With a soft smile he ended with, “So that’s what I did.”
In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton said,
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”