We call it ‘at’ or ‘at symbol’ or ‘commercial at’. The Germans call it ‘klammeraffe’ the Spider Monkey and the Greeks call it ‘papaki’ the duckling. Whatever we call it, if you are anywhere on planet email then the ‘@’ symbol is going to be extremely familiar. What you may not know is that inclusion of the @ character in email is attributed to Ray Tomlinson who sadly died on the weekend, aged 74.
Ray Tomlinson was born in New York in 1941. A graduate of MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) he went on to work on a number of computing and internet related technologies at BBN Technologies. During his time at BBN he worked on a program known as SNDMSG, a simple messaging system for the shared users of the then TENEX operating system. Part of Tomlinson’s legacy was to extend SNDMSG to be more widely accessible over the ARPAnet, an early technical foundation of what we now know as the internet.
Perhaps his most memorable action (a direct enabler of the extended SNDMSG functionality) was to introduce the @ sign to separate the user name from the name of the machine of destination (user@host), essentially creating the email address as we know it today. It’s widely documented that Tomlinson therefore sent the first email (in 1971), although the details of exactly what message was sent, when and to whom was never formally recorded.
Talking to Wired magazine in 2012 Tomlinson recalled that choosing the @ symbol was a relatively simple decision based on the least used keys on the computer keyboards of the day. After all slashes, hyphens and other non-alphanumeric characters were frequently used, but not many people have an @ in their name (at least not then anyway). The @ symbol just made the most sense.
In 2011 Tomlinson was listed as the 4th in the top 150 innovators from MIT, eclipsed only by Tim Berners Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web), Eric Lander (for his pioneering work on human genome sequencing) and William Shockley (inventor of the solid-state transistor). He’s known as ‘the Godfather’ of email and was inducted into the internet hall of fame in 2012.
Ray Tomlinson’s work fundamentally changed the way that billions of people around the world electronically communicate every day and brought the humble @ symbol to be one of the most familiar characters on the modern computer keyboard.