Ray Tomlinson would likely have lived in anonymity but for Shiva Ayyadurai, the man who claimed to invent email as a 14-year-old child. Ayyadurai is certainly bright, a Fulbright scholar who holds four degrees from MIT. He ran against Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the 2018 Senate race, attracting 91,710 votes.
Ayyadurai’s claim as the inventor of email led a group of largely retired ARPA computer scientists to scour their memories. The core idea of email existed for a long time, usually by sending a file from one person to another. However, using the “@” symbol to separate a user from the domain name dates back to BBN employee Ray Tomlinson. For a quick background, the username is the left part of an email address and the domain on the right. For example, firstname.lastname@example.org has the username shiva and the domain name gloriousgenius.com (that is not his real email address).
Specifically, in 1971, Ray Tomlinson tackled a problem about how to send mail between multiple networked computers over the Arpanet. Before Tomlinson’s innovation users would send email to a numbered “mailbox” on the same computer. “With time-sharing systems, and computers in general, what you really want to do is send messages to people, not numbered mailboxes,” said Tomlinson. His innovation involved using real names on the left of an email address with the name of the server on the right separated by the @ symbol.
Tomlinson’s project was a side project, not part of his regular work. His innovation was done to simplify his day job. BBN never commercialized Tomlinson’s innovation. It was not until decades later, as computer historians were writing the history of the Internet, that people outside the initial Arpanet community recognized Tomlinson’s work.