Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Where y@…

I got an e-mail from Ray Tomlinson today. Well, at least I am on his rather long mailing list with the other denizens of Aesop’s Bagels in Lexington, MA. On my last trip to visit friends in Cambridge, I met Ray at Aesop’s during one of the group’s occasional meetings there.

For those of you who don’t know Ray, following is a story from the Rensselaer Alumni magazine bragging on this member of the class of 1963:

“Ray Tomlinson '63 received the George R. Stibitz Computer Pioneer Award from the American Computer Museum on April 28, 2000, almost 30 years after he wrote what has been called the “killer application” of the Internet. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, and Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, were honored at the same time.”

A "killer application" is software that is so useful, people will buy a computer just to have it. For the personal computer, the killer app was the spread sheet; for the Internet, many consider it to be e-mail. Let us review a little history to put this in perspective.

In 1957, with the launch of Sputnik I, the USSR seized the lead in the cold war battle for technological superiority. Almost immediately the Department of Defense formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to serve as a premier high-tech think tank to coordinate and subcontract research at universities and laboratories across the country.

Advanced computing became an early ARPA priority, along with finding a way to link the far-flung network of ARPA researchers. The network would be called ARPANET, the predecessor of what we know today as the Internet. Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm, worked under contract on the project.

In the fall of 1971 Ray Tomlinson was making improvements to a mail program that let programmers and researchers leave messages for each other on an ARPANET computer at BBN. Like all the message programs of the day, this one worked on a single machine. It occurred to Tomlinson that the message program might be merged with another program developed for transferring files among the far-flung ARPANET computers.But, if messages were intended for more than one location, there had to be a way to distinguish between local and network mail.

Tomlinson hit on the @ sign “to indicate that the user was 'at' some other host,” he says. “When I was satisfied the program worked, I sent a message to the rest of my group explaining how to use it. The first network e-mail announced its own existence.”

Ray’s idea causes him to often be referred to as the “inventor” of the @ sign. He clears that up on his personal home page.

So, is knowing Ray as noteworthy as, say, knowing Brad Pitt? I think so. What do you think?


jbv's Competitive Edge 


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