.COMmentary: E-mail turns 30

.COMmentary: E-mail turns 30

By Mike Lotz

E-mail turns 30

By Mike Lotz

As great inventions go, e-mail has a rather dull beginning back in 1971.

Ray Tomlinson, the engineer considered the “father of e-mail,” can’t quite recall when the first message was sent, what it said, or even who the recipient was.

Tomlinson, engineer at Cambridge, Mass. – based BBN Technologies, finds himself in the spotlight again after all these years, having to answer questions about the computer program he designed as it reaches its 30th birthday in the next couple weeks.

There was already a computer program to enable file transfer and a second crude messaging program. But the programs had their flaws. For example, the message program only enabled a user to send a message to a colleague’s mailbox as long as that mailbox was located on the same computer as the sender’s.

Tomlinson got around this by creating remote personal mailboxes that could send and receive messages via a computer network. He also conceived the now-ubiquitous “at” symbol (@), to ensure that a message was sent to a designated recipient.

The end product was the combination of the two existing programs, enabling a person to send a message for the first time to a specified computer user on any computer hooked up to the ARPA Net, the predecessor to today’s Internet.

Thirty years later, e-mail has become a vital form of communication whose usefulness was demonstrated during the devastating attacks on New York last month.

While swamped telephone systems failed, e-mail became the only reliable link for many during the attacks. It connected friends as telephone circuits became overloaded in the hours after planes toppled the WTC and blew apart a section of the Pentagon.

But back in the autumn of 1971—Tomlinson says he can’t recall which month—e-mail was a relatively small success. That is, he added, simply because there were just a few hundred users of the ARPA Net that could put it to use.

But as the Internet grew from a small group of academics and government workers, it created a linked and vast network of personal computer users typing e-mails to one another. As the personal computer boom in the mid-1980s, finally e-mail trickled into the lives of computer enthusiasts and university students.

The Internet grew again in the mid-1990s as the first Web browsers introduced the World Wide Web to the couch potato. As the Web grew, so did e-mail.

We have Ray Tomlinson to thank for the small and rather crude little program he wrote 30 years ago for one of the top killer-apps in the history of the Internet.

If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail as questions@iwebwerks.com

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