The creator himself thought it was just a 'nice idea'

Ray Tomlinson (b. 1941, New York)

It took some time for the United States to process the Sputnik shock at the end of 1957/early 1958. In quick succession, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 (October 4, 1957), Sputnik 2 (with the dog Laika, November 3, 1957) and Sputnik 3 (May 15, 1957) into space.

The Soviets thus demonstrated their technological superiority in the middle of the Cold War.

The United States stepped up its efforts to boost military research in a variety of ways. One of the initiatives was the creation in 1962 of a new research organization called the Advanced Research Project Agency, better known as ARPA.

Her assignment was to coordinate all new ideas and projects from universities and government institutions and to support them financially with National Defense funds.

It was abundantly clear to the military that the still young computer technology would play a major role in all this, and they therefore set up the Information Processing Technique Office (IPTO) subsection.

It came under the direction of Professor Joseph Licklider who designed the archetype of a computer network, in a star shape. The problem was that if one of the computers failed, the entire network would crash.

At the suggestion of engineer Paul Baran, the network was built like a spider's web, so that transmitter and receiver were connected through many paths, making them less vulnerable.

It was also Baran who invented packet switching: each message is divided into packets and sent to its destination via a different route. They are reassembled at the point of arrival.

That way 'the enemy' could not intercept the information. And if a package was lost, then only that package had to be sent again.

This is how ARPANET was created in 1969 – 25 years before ordinary citizens could use the Internet: a kind of Internet for the American military government and the scientific world. The elaboration of the system was outsourced by Defense to Bolt, Beranek and Newman, BNN.

It started with four institutions in California and one in Utah. Soon others joined. In December 1971 that was 23 computers in 15 locations.

In the late 1960s in the United States, manning one monster computer was enough work for an entire team of technicians working on shifts; they left messages for each other with a little program called SNDMSG. The man who knew all about it was called Ray Tomlinson.

He worked at BNN's offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts. BNN was commissioned by the Ministry of Defense to connect the computers of universities and military research centers.

SNDMSG was like a mailbox but could only be used by people working on the same computer. Tomlinson also used CPYNET, a program for transferring files from one computer to another.

One day, in October 1971, he said he got "the nice idea" to combine the two. He wrote a new program (200 lines long - all together 6 hours of work) with 'the letterbox on the back of the file package'.

He sent his first message from one computer to another in his office – the two were right next to each other. According to legend, the first message consisted of the letters from the top row of his keyboard: QWERTYUIOP. Tomlinson said many years later that he simply couldn't remember.

But that it must have been some kind of test message, perhaps QWERTYUIOP. Or maybe "Test 1-2-3." The second email only served to publicize its existence. All very unspectacular.

Tomlinson was looking for a way to distinguish between two types of messages: those addressed to people using the same computer, and those that left for people elsewhere on what was then the Internet, a forerunner of the Internet. He could choose between twelve punctuation keys.

They were all confusing in an address, except for the most exotic, which was the @ sign. Which in English means 'at', 'worth', as in a phrase like '7 apples @ 5 cents makes 35 cents'. A sign used only on invoices in accounting.

He neatly placed the sign between the user's login name and the name of his computer. It took Tomlinson about half a minute to come up with the @ sign.

The then thirty-year-old computer engineer from Vail Mills, New York, graduated from the famous MIT in 1965. From 1967 he was able to work at BNN.

Throughout his career – 40 years at BNN – he has remained the modest engineer who is briefly dragged from behind his desk by the excited media on the anniversary of the birth of e-mail. And on that occasion underlined every time that it all amounted to nothing.

Had he had vision? No. Has email changed his life? No. Has email changed the life of modern man? 'Hmm, the future will tell. Time will tell.' Interviewing Tomlinson about his invention is like taking a cold shower.

Nevertheless, from 2000 onwards - from jurors who would not believe him - he received one award after another.

In 2000, for example, a Computer Pioneer Award together with none other than Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple) and Tim BernersLee (co-founder of the world wide web).
When asked what is central to his life, he says: 'Nothing dominates. I play around with computers, make a little music and play some golf. And I read everything I can get my hands on, from biology to archaeology. Although I don't see anything I want to work on myself.

I find biological computers intriguing. And quantum computers, yes, those too.' And on such an occasion he is also willing to confess wistfully: "I miss the anarchy of those early days."

Due to the great success and the numerous connections, ARPANET lost its military function in the eighties; henceforth the Ministry of Defense had its own network for practical purposes. ARPANET ceased to exist in 1988.

In 1991, two men developed the World Wide Web for scientists at Cern in Geneva, which they gave to the world as a gift in 1995. Tomlinson's e-mail was already 24 years old at the time.

(See also: computer, computer mouse, personal computer, world wide web)

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