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Late Email Inventor’s Enduring Legacy: The @ Symbol

RIP Raymond Tomlinson.

Late Email Inventor’s Enduring Legacy: The @ Symbol

Love it or hate it, email is a major part of our lives. For that, as well as the renaissance of the @ symbol, we have Raymond Samuel Tomlinson to thank. Tomlinson–who may have done more than anyone to change the way we work–died Friday. He was 74.

Tomlinson was a tech legend. After earning his master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1965 at MIT, he began working on ARPANET, the early packet switching network funded by the Department of Defense that eventually evolved to become the technological foundation of the Internet. This work culminated when he invented ARPANET’s first network mail client. Previously, it was possible for users on the same computer to send messages to each other, but not to other computers. After hacking some protocols, Tomlinson successfully sent the first email from one computer to another in late 1971 (it read: “QWERTYIOP.”)

Flickr user aileen wang

It’s a testament to how hated email has become in the Slack age that many of the headlines about Tomlinson’s death also highlight his role in popularizing the @ symbol. After languishing for centuries as an underused accounting symbol, the typographical curlicue was given a second life thanks to Tomlinson as a symbol of Internet identity.

Tomlinson downplayed his genius in choosing the @ symbol as the navel of a new digital communication medium. “I am frequently asked why I chose the at sign, but the at sign just makes sense,” he wrote on his website in the early 1990s. “The purpose of the at sign (in English) was to indicate a unit price (for example, 10 items @ $1.95). I used the at sign to indicate that the user was “at” some other host rather than being local.” So maybe it wasn’t genius. But serendipity is just as important to a pioneer, and the choice of the @ symbol had serendipity in spades.

Today, the @ symbol is used in everything: our email addresses, yes, but also our Twitter handles, our Snapchat usernames, our Slack replies, and more. That’s why, even as the biggest and best Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Slack, and Microsoft throw billions at the problem of killing of email, the @ symbol is likely to be Ray Tomlinson’s enduring legacy. Email may be on its way out. But love for the @ symbol shows no signs of waning.

About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at john.brownlee+fastco@gmail.com.