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The Birth of e-mail

October 23, 2001

A public radio commentary

I believe that the quality of communication has declined. Here's my evidence: Samuel Morse's first telegraph message in 1844 was the weighty question "What hath God wrought?" Then, in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell advanced communications, but degraded their quality with his first phone call. Nothing weighty at all, just "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you." Then in 1971 came the first e-mail message. Its author cannot quite remember it exactly, but he thinks it was "Q-W-E-R-T-Y-I-O-P." The only thing the sender can remember for sure, is that it was all upper case.

It was sent by Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of e-mail. He worked as an engineer developing something called the ARPANET, a precursor to the Internet. The ARPANET was designed to connect computers across the nation. It started with fifteen computers placed in California, Utah and New England.

Ray Tomlinson, who worked on two of the computers stored in New England, was in the habit of leaving messages for his co-workers on the computer. A kind of note tacked to the computer, although stored inside, of course. It could only be read by someone sitting at that local computer. Tomlinson realized it would be useful to send messages to the engineers working at computers in other states.

So he wrote a program to send e-mail, then sent his first test message - that "Q-W-E-R-T-Y-I-O-P" - from a computer on his left to one on the right. That first e-mail message traveled all of about five feet.

He showed his new e-mail system to a colleague and said "Don't tell anyone. This isn't what we're supposed to be working on." But as word leaked out he decided to announce his new program himself. He sent out e-mail messages letting his colleagues across the nation know about his work. The first real use of e-mail was a kind of spam that announced its own existence. This message also introduced a symbol that now permeates our world.

Tomlinson explained in his message, that each user needed to distinguish messages intended only for their local computer from those headed out into the computer network. He told them to use an sign.

Soon e-mail became the most popular use for the ARPANET. Within two years 75% of its traffic was e-mail. Ray Tomlinson's e-mail spawned a revolution as great as Samuel Morse's telegraph and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, but will he be remembered? He doesn't think so, but today more than 125 million people have e-mail address. All featuring Ray Tomlinson's sign.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises