Raymond Tomlinson, the inventor of email and the person responsible for giving the "@" symbol a broader prepositional purpose, died Saturday at age 74 of an apparent heart attack, according to multiple reports. 

It was in 1971 that Tomlinson invented the first email network by which you could send a message to a specific person at a specific address. He was working at Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN), a Boston-based company developing an early iteration of the Internet called ARPANET, notes The Verge in its obituary

Tomlinson had worked at BBN since 1967. Later, BBN was acquired by Raytheon Co., where Tomlinson still worked at the time of his death, as a principal scientist, according to the Associated Press

As for the "@" symbol, Tomlinson spoke about his choice to use it in email addresses in an interview you can still find on the Raytheon site. In response to the question, "Why did you choose the @ sign?" Tomlinson replied: 

The primary reason was that it made sense. The @ sign didn't appear in names so there would be no ambiguity about where the separation between login name and host name occurred. (Of course, this last notion is now refuted by the proliferation of products, services, slogans, etc. incorporating the @ sign.)

Innovators looking for lessons from Tomlinson's career and achievements should focus on two takeaways:

1. Email was invented decades before its use became widespread. Email did not become a mainstream form of communication until the 1990s, after the proliferation of personal computers and home Internet services. In this regard--a period of decades between invention and mainstream usage--it follows a common innovation pattern. The barcode, for example, was patented in 1952, but no one made any money off it until the mid 1970s. Philips Electronics pioneered HDTV in the mid-'80s, but high-definition cameras hadn't arrived. Sony developed its first e-reader in 1990, but books weren't yet digitized. Amazon's Kindle didn't come out until 2007.

2. Tomlinson remained down-to-earth about his contribution. In 2016, the inventors of technologies far less ubiquitous or important than email receive an abundance of media attention. Tomlinson, according to various reports, was humble, modest, and kind. "People just loved to work with him," Raytheon spokeswoman Joyce Kuzman told the AP. "He was so patient and generous with his time....He was just a really nice, down-to-earth, good guy."

Published on: Mar 7, 2016