I received an email this past week asking me if I knew who Ray Tomlinson was. My email reply confessed that no, the name did not ring a bell. My friend then replied by email to enlighten me about this man. Ray died in 2016. For much of his working life, he was employed by a company called BBE Technologies, which was a subsidiary of tech giant Raytheon. He was a pioneer of computer technology.
Ray was one of the original nerds.
He had a reputation with being an “Aw, shucks” kind of guy, someone who was capable of great thoughts and ideas but shrugged off his discoveries and ideas as being something people would probably one day find anyway. Once, an interviewer asked him if he ever felt guilt about letting his email inbox fill and allowing it to go for days unchecked, Ray shook his head. “That’s not email’s fault,” he explained. Ray didn’t understand how modern people were putting human feelings behind something that has none. Email, he added, “does not produce guilt.” He was good like that, good at being able to separate his feelings towards technology from the technology itself. An humble man and, by all accounts, a kind person. Rare these days.
Despite being an early techie, Ray didn’t have a cell phone. He wasn’t on social media (I’ve found that many people in computer technology eschew social media—more on that another time, perhaps), and he was a self-professed Luddite. He laughed that, despite his dislike for how technology had become omnipresent in the modern world, technology was here to stay whether he liked it or not. He noted that technology was evolving rapidly; for example, emails were often being replaced with texts for notifications, information, and even advertising.
And Ray should know what he’s talking about. He literally wrote the book on the subject.
You see, in 1971, Ray designed a computer program to solve a fairly simple problem for the scientists in his department. It wasn’t until 1994 or so that he realized what he had done almost 25 years before. Again, it fit’s Ray’s personality that he sort of shrugged off that simple program. In his mind, there was a problem, and it was his job to solve it with computer code. So, he did.
The problem in Ray’s department was one of communication. It was impractical for the various people in his department to pick up the phone and call each other when they had issues, situations, or needed information/clarification. So, Ray designed the simple program for them to communicate with each other at will and to respond when one had the time.
We call it email.
(And Ray even created the use of @!)