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E-mail is now 30 years young

October 5, 2001

Now it’s time to celebrate 30 years of e-mail's existence. But then, even Ray Tomlinson, considered to be the 'father of e-mail', does not seem to know of its genesis. From 1971 to 2001, from snail-like 300 baud to 56.6 kbps modem, e-mail has come a long way.

LONDON: As great inventions go, e-mail had a rather ho-hum beginning back in 1971.

In fact, Ray Tomlinson, the American engineer considered the "father of e-mail", can't quite recall when the first message was sent, what it said, or even who the recipient was. "I have no idea what the first one was," he told Reuters. "It might have been the first line from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address for all I know. The only thing I know was it was all in upper case."

Tomlinson, principal engineer at Cambridge, Mass.-based BBN Technologies, finds himself in the spotlight again after all these years, having to answer questions about the computer program he designed as it reaches its 30th birthday in the coming weeks.

He modestly calls his baby "no major tour de force." It was just 200 lines of code, he says. And the inspiration — one computer program to enable file transfers and a second crude messaging program — already existed, he said.

But the programs had their flaws. For example, the message program only enabled a user to send a communique to a colleague's mailbox as long as that mailbox was located on the same computer as the sender's.

Tomlinson got around this by creating remote personal mailboxes that could send and receive messages via a computer network. He also conceived the now-famous "@" symbol to ensure a message was sent to a designated recipient.

The end product, he said, was simply the combination of the two existing programs, enabling a person to send a message for the first time to a specified computer user on any computer hooked up to the ARPA Net, the predecessor to today's Internet, developed by the US Department of Defense.

Can't live with or without it

Thirty years on, e-mail has become a vital form of communication.

Last month, e-mail became the only reliable link for many frantic souls during the hijacked plane attacks in the United States. It connected friends and family in New York and Washington DC as telephone circuits became overloaded in the hours after planes toppled the World Trade Center and blew apart a section of the Pentagon.

Poignant e-mails from survivors have circulated around the world, filling in clues about harrowing escapes and daring rescue attempts.

A week later, it was e-mail that helped spread the damaging Nimda computer virus, knocking out corporate computer networks around the globe and inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage.

Like all essential communication devices, e-mail has a love-hate relationship with its users. For every, pick-me-up message of praise or joke sent electronically, it seems there are an equal number of unsolicited e-mail reminders that we can lose weight overnight, make money working from home or earn an honorary college degree.

But back in the autumn of 1971 — Tomlinson says he can't recall which month — e-mail was a relatively small success. That is, he added, simply because there were just a few hundred users of the ARPA Net that could put it to use.

And, the top-of-the-line modem connection at the time operated at a snail-like 300 baud, roughly one-twentieth of the speed of today's standard 56.6 kbps modem. It made only the most concise message practical.

"Reliance took a few years to happen," said Tomlinson. It wasn't until the personal computer boom in the mid-1980s that e-mail trickled into the lives of computer enthusiasts and university students.

Another major stage in its development came in the mid-90s as the first Web browsers introduced the World Wide Web to the couch potato. As Web usage grew so did e-mail.

Over the years, Tomlinson said, complete strangers have sent him notes of thanks and a few of criticism for his invention — all by e-mail, of course.

by Bernhard Warner, European Internet Correspondent,Copyright © Reuters Limited 2001.


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