Raymond Tomlinson, the godfather of email, died Saturday morning of a suspected heart attack. He was 74.
Tomlinson, who was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012, is best known for rescuing the @ symbol from obscurity and, in the process, shaping the way we talk about being online.
He was also a key driver in the development of standards for the “From”, “Subject”, and date fields found in email messages today.
Aesthetically speaking, @ is a rotund and cozy symbol, sleek enough to have been inducted into MoMA’s architecture and design collection.
In 2010, the museum called the acquisition “momentous” and “elating,” but cheerful enough to have acquired friendly nicknames around the world. In Israel, it’s a “strudel”; in Croatia, it’s a “monkey”; and in Mandarin Chinese, it goes by “little mouse”.
Conceptually, what @ has done is signify the internet as a destination: the @ symbol is “at”, therefore the internet is a place one can go, a place at which one may reside.
The symbol suggests that we think of the web as a geographic location, rather than a state of mind. It is something to be surfed, cruised and crawled through.
Forty years ago, Tomlinson was an engineer at the R&D company Bolt Beranek and Newman when he developed an application that allowed messages to be sent back and forth between computers. He used @ to separate the user name from the host name, selecting a symbol with a modicum of familiarity to the general public.
At the time, it was used mostly for accounting purposes – 10 bananas @ 25 cents – but some linguists think the marking dates to the sixth century, invented as an abbreviation for the Latin word meaning “toward” or “at”.
His official biography page on the Internet Hall of Fame website credit’s Tomlinson with “fundamentally changing the way people communicate”.
“Today, tens of millions of email-enabled devices are in use every day. Email remains the most popular application, with over a billion and a half users spanning the globe and communicating across the traditional barriers of time and space,” his citation reads.