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Ray Tomlinson, Inventor of Email, Has Died (theverge.com)
451 points by jrbedard on Mar 6, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 69 comments

Actually email is worth thinking about because if you didn't live it, you might not understand it's path or impact.

I came to age in technology at a strange age, being at a start-up in 1979 in high school, then getting my EE degree at the University of Washington in the late 80s, before joining IBM.

For those of you not around and the time, by the time I got to the UW, we had email and could send messages worldwide with BITNET. However, it was not critical and not used as much as you might think. Actually, USENET was a much bigger part of any geeks life. USENET had an amazing impact on everything we did in academia, and I remember getting on MINIX USENET group and some geek from Europe saying that he was trying to do his own operating system. I was more hardware oriented, and I missed my chance to contribute to early Linux.

Where I first saw email becoming central to a culture is when I got to IBM. PROFS notes, or email, had a massive impact on the entire culture. The combination of calendar and email and the internal culture that had a terminal in every conference room would be familiar with most readers of Hacker news. You could have survived with what they offered in today's modern world.

The person responsible for the addition of email to PROFS was not influenced by what was happening in BITNET. The email in university was like a home brewed computer. I am not saying it wasn't important, but I'm saying that the adoption of email wasn't tied to this. However, the fact that IBM pushed email was as central as IBM creating a personal computer, only in this case it wasn't following Apple.

I saw an article on the founder of IBM PROFS email, and so I hunted him down on email while I was at IBM. I regret I cannot remember his name, but I wanted to say he was in research at Almaden, but this may be an human ECC error. However, I do remember that I wanted to know how obvious the creation of email was for everybody, and how much it was embraced. He stated at the time that most people thought that it would not be central to business life. Nobody saw the impact of email coming.

In the list of cognitive biases, we call it simply "Hindsight Bias."

It just goes to show how the obvious is not obvious until it happens.

My question, "What is happen today, that will be the next email that we are all missing?"

"..I remember getting on MINIX USENET group and some geek from Europe saying that he was trying to do his own operating system..."

I can relate to a certain extent. I had the opportunity to interact with an early Google employee (Ex-professor) and I did't pursue or dive into that domain. I could have been more successful in a technical field. Now I do Program Management :)

Similar experience. I sent a few emails on the ARPANET when at school in the late 70s and had some awareness of USENET at that time as well.

But I wasn't really immersed in email until I joined Data General in the mid-eighties where the use of email as part of CEO (which I think is fair to describe as a PROFS competitor) was pervasive. But it was pervasive only within our company. During this period, I used email within other systems like Compuserve but the BBS world, for example, didn't really have the concept of email--you had private posts.

Over time, various systems got connected to the, by then, Internet but it wasn't until the relatively late nineties that you could start reliably assuming that most people were on email.

Email, in my opinion, is still the best solution for a number of collaborative and communication tasks. It's deficient in any number of areas, but it does away with all the useless and distracting features of things like slack.

Nobody here has considered the environmental impact of this invention. How much physical mail have we stopped lugging around the globe because of email?

Then social impact: by popularizing near-instantaneous global written interpersonal communication we have removed the walled garden of national language, culture and politics. Suddenly, a great force of inertia demands that every profession, every social and political issue must be viewed within its truly global context. Of course, we're not quite there yet but it's a clear trajectory.

Connecting the hive mind was really a red pill moment for humanity.

Apparently the amount is about 30 billion pieces of mail, whatever that means[1]

[1] http://www.heritage.org/~/media/Images/Reports/2013/10/bg284...

That figure appears to be annually, and United States USPS 'first class' mail only: https://web.archive.org/web/20120114113728/http://about.usps...

Wow! Not even sure if that can be extrapolated into other markets such as China or India (although the take impact is not as big due to their lack of internet access). The impact is very big indeed.

May have to start calling "post office" the "cargo office" as cargo would be the only item physically sent.

Actually I live in mainland China. They really jumped on the internet. Letters basically no longer exist here, it's even rare for bills to be sent by mail, it's all electronic: they skipped that stage. Just as you say: cargo office, except that unlike the US with Fedex and DHL, here they have about 20 private national courier companies, and their prices are really low.

We are mighty lucky that e-mail managed to become interoperable and we can easily send e-mails to users of any server without breaking our heads and wondering whether their servers and clients will understand that. Instant messaging on the other hand failed miserably in this regard.

And messaging is arguably getting even worse, what with twitter DM, Facebook chat, Google whatever it's called, Slack, the list goes on...

It's frankly why we still use email for things that it's not really suited for

I think I'd like to call it The Great Messaging Fragmentation. It's been happening ever since I needed Pidgin (then Gaim) to keep in touch with my friends. Now there's a business reason to fragment even further, it's not going to get any better and I don't think there's a way to improve things. I'll be over here on IRC if you need me.

At least with Pidgin I could participate with any modern networked computing device. We have now reached a point where the most popular messaging networks are exclusively tied to smartphones (e.g., WhatsApp).

What worries me most though, is that some businesses and governments no longer appear willing to use e-mail for external formal communication at all. When I asked my bank (ING in the Netherlands) how I could e-mail them with a question, they stated that e-mail is no longer an option (not even via a web-form), and that I would have to use Twitter direct messages, Facebook, or a web-based chat-page for any digital communication with them.

E-mail may not be hip, but I do get to keep an archive with sent and received communications that I can easily backup and keep for future reference, just like I do with paper mail (at least the important stuff).

> When I asked my bank (ING in the Netherlands) how I could e-mail them with a question, they stated that e-mail is no longer an option (not even via a web-form), and that I would have to use Twitter direct messages, Facebook, or a web-based chat-page for any digital communication with them.

Wow, that's pretty ignorant to say the least.

> interoperable and we can easily send e-mails to users of any server without breaking our heads and wondering whether their servers and clients will understand that

Not sure this holds true anymore in practice. Try to set up your own email server, your emails will probably get sent to spam by gmail, yahoo etc. Sure, it is technically possible, but it is time consuming and still risky to use it for business. At least you can still use your own domain and switch providers (google apps, outlook etc).

> Try to set up your own email server, your emails will probably get sent to spam by gmail, yahoo etc.

That problem is so overstated it's not even funny. Your email will get sent to spam if your IP adress is blacklisted, or if you send spam. It's actually gotten harder to get blacklisted over time, as people has gotten more tolerant towards semi-spam ("newsletters" and stuff) and people are generally more conservative in blacklisting whole networks these days.

Don't misbehave. Don't be a bad net citizen. Get your net and DNS in order, and the default Debian set up of postfix will do you just fine. I do it and most of my customers over the years have done it too. Some outsource their spam filtering, a few outsource their whole email, but most outside the small startup world still tend to keep their own mail server.

I just recently had weeks of headaches over getting my server's email sent to spam. After setting up a brand new domain, with SPF, DKIM, etc., I woke up one morning to find my domain wasn't resolving.

Eventually I learned it was because Radix, my TLD registry, had noticed my domain on the Spamhaus Domain Blocklist. Who knows why it was added; I definitely hadn't been sending spam. Radix, being proactive, placed a 'serverHold' DNS status on my domain name, preventing it from resolving.

Luckily Spamhaus has an automated form for dealing with false positives. Eventually Radix removed the status. (Though, a week later it was back up, for no reason. Had to badger them for over a week to get the status removed again. Would not recommend them.) It's very lucky I wasn't trying to do anything with that domain like run a business, or rely on @<domainname> addresses to work.

TL;DR the problem is definitely not overstated.

I think that's a good example of overstating the problem right there. Who knows why it was added? Well, it certainly wasn't because you hadn't outsourced your email.

Your registry could (and probably would) have put your domain on hold independently of where your MX points. Nothing short of choosing another TLD will protect you from your registry playing games with you.

> Don't misbehave. Don't be a bad net citizen. Get your net and DNS in order

That's not the kind of things I want to worry about. Most companies have business to run with problems of their own, thinking about DNS config and all the rules to be a good citizen (besides obvious spamming) sounds like headache and unneeded complexity to most companies. Not to mention backups, having to pay dedicated admins etc.

> most outside the small startup world still tend to keep their own mail server

Not sure about that:



The problem is well documented, here is one post from last year:


There is IRC, which still has a reasonable number of users but isn't "global" in the way email is, SIP which could be used for IM but often wasn't, and Microsoft even attempted(but failed) to standardise MSN Messenger's protocol:


XMPP came closest to offering something serious enough. But most turned their backs on it and didn't propose anything better either.

It's not that people intentionally turned their backs on it (Facebook and Google did, for combined business and technical reasons). It's that people will use whatever's easiest to use at the time, with a heavy bias to going where their friends are, whether that's iMessage (with the associated hardware cost), Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or even IRC.

I keep wondering if it is became of the era it was made in.

email was store and forward by necessity. IM was anything but.

I work in the email space; thanks to this guy's invention, I can feed my family and have a solid financial life. It is amazing, the web of events, that shape our lives and the lives of others. RIP.

Even lots of people that are not directly active in the email space owe a part of their income to them, I find it a lot easier to imagine a world without smartphones or the web than I find it to imagine a world without email.

I think it's fair to say that email has had a big impact on the modern world.

I wonder how much the economy would break down, and have to change, if email suddenly went away?

And even if someone doesn't use it that much for personal communication, it's part of the underlying net infrastructure (think account-creation verification emails, password reset emails, bank statements, etc).

"I wonder how much the economy would break down, and have to change, if email suddenly went away?"

Or suddenly went proprietary.

> Or suddenly went proprietary.

It might even happen.

It almost did happen. Embrace, extend, extinguish.

> I work in the email space; thanks to this guy's invention, I can feed my family and have a solid financial life. It is amazing, the web of events, that shape our lives and the lives of others.

Consider what would have happened if email was a patented, proprietary tech (like Twitter, Facebook, etc.) rather than open.

The patent would have expired in the early 90s, before the internet even went mainstream...

It's funny how core of a service the idea of email is...even pre-internet. Once companies started supplying dumb terminals connected to the corporate mainframe on every executive's desk, "electronic mail" quickly supplanted paper memos.

In my college OS class we had to build a *nix-like OS from the ground up and one of the required basic services we had to build was user-to-user messaging. After hacking out basic versions of "ls" and "cat" that was pretty much what we built next.

What was not so obvious, and much harder to do, and required something like the internet to solve was system-to-system mail transfer, which Tomlinson created. It turns out to be a strangely hard problem to do well. It's not hard to get it up and running, but the edge-cases and abuses have plagued us ever since. Maybe the problem is humans.

Internet pioneers used to invent tools of communication like email, TCP/IP, DNS - now the pioneers are building walled gardens like Facebook, Twitter, Google :-/

Facebook, Twitter and Google are the railroad tycoons (Twitter might only be aspiring), they came after the pioneers and built valuable infrastructure, capturing much of the value for themselves.

If you are going to torture an analogy, I say make it scream.

Have lost a lot of great names in Computer Science lately. While sad, it's a great testament to how fast computers have evolved. Everything here that we have has evolved within a single generation. Incredible. The pace of human technological growth in the last 100 years has been explosive. It seems from my perspective now, it's slowed, but I'm now thinking that assumption is very wrong. I think in retrospect it's going to continue to explode, and it's only my view of what I'm using currently that makes it seem that way. Even a few slow years can be easily ignored in context of the leaps and bounds technology tends to evolve in: The transistor, the internet, the world as mobile...

The future is, and will always be, awesome potential.

Email is the only revolutionary communication technology there is. The next evolution is that of email lists. Anything else beyond these two, be that Twitter, Facebook, etc (they are nothing more than public email) are not evolutionary in true sense.

I'd only take away BCC feature from the email as a mistake, or useless. Email-lists should have been the true BCC.

Only? IRC is pretty rockin'.

IRC/Live-chatting does not really solve any new problem which the Email has not solved already. If you look at live-chatting in the corporate and the personal world, you'll see that most often (and when things gets tough) people tend to either pick up a phone, or they'd send long-form email.

A lot of people would disagree with you. Sure, once something requires higher bandwidth or longer-form 1:1 or 1:few communication, it makes sense to switch modes but there's a lot of value in short-form synchronous communications. I don't actually use IRC/IM comms a lot myself (other than as a sidebar for video meetings) but I have in the past and would do more in different citcumstances.

Email is such a profound application on Internet. Kind of like air or water, and therefore its (nearly) free[1]. The walled garden social networks are like Coke (or sugary water) or polluted air in comparison.

Aren't there any poets here, who could pen a few couplets in his memory & respect? Just saying RIP to such a great Engineer, feels so not enough. Feel proud to call myself an Engineer, when such giants also call them one.

[1] - we have freedom via choice. If you use gmail/yahoo/etc you know you are doing a trade off. But its comforting to have choice.

I think I'll try to honour this day by sending as little email as possible. As close to an "email moment of silence" as I can achieve I suppose.

> Thee very first email has been lost to time. As he said in an NPR interview from 2009, they were just random strings of text.

As usual, technical people easily miss the marketing value of sound bites. He should have invented a clever and catchy story about the first email.

Technical people will immediately say that you can't do that because that would a lie, forgetting the thousand "lies" that we are all complicit in (Santa Claus, tooth fairy, "your tie/haircut looks nice", "sorry, I don't have any change to give you").

EBay founder Omidyar said that eBay was invented to trade Pez dispensers, a story he's now admitted is completely false, but no one seems to be too worked up over that. Apparently Omidyar understands the difference between a lie (has an actual negative effect on someone) and marketing fluff (makes for an interesting story but is just trivia).

For such an influential person--in the sense that he had a huge impact on the world--Tomlinson is completely unknown. I'm guessing that his financial reward for inventing email was essentially nothing as well.

> Technical people will immediately say that you can't do that because that would a lie.

Technical people, and people with integrity.

So you're calling Pierre Omidyar a _______?

Did you tell your kids about Santa Claus? Did your parents tell you about Santa Claus? Does it follow that you or your parents lack integrity?

The world is not truth vs lies. There's more nuance. This illustrates why many brilliant technical people lacking marketing sense are relegated to obscurity.

> Did you tell your kids about Santa Claus?

I don't have kids, and if I ever do, I'll tell them Santa is a fun legend people like to play along with, but that it isn't real.

> Did your parents tell you about Santa Claus?

Yes, but by the time my sister was born, they had changed their tune to what I describe above, and she didn't seem to suffer any development ill effects, still enjoyed Christmas, etc.

wait till you have kids then. tell them the whole world is made of lies. start em young.


Some people also just do things because they love doing them. Not everything needs to be monetized and optimized for ROI.

I'd hate to live in a world where people only work on cool projects to get rich.

Sometimes comments on HN make me worried that we're heading that direction.

What's the criteria for the black band at the top of the page when a tech luminary passes away?

Too bad he never got to see it replaced with something like Google Wave

100% of people who invented email, died.

Surely a black banner day, if ever there was one?

I've noticed that they've pretty much quit doing that, and as much as I agree with you, I think that's for the best. You never want it to turn into a competition as to whether or not someone's death was meaningful enough to merit it, and at the same time avoid just having a constant black bar in the title.

Not to take anything away from his legacy, but isn't it a stretch to talk about the "invention" of email when we had telex, telegrams, heliography, scrolls of vellum carried by Roman messenger, and so on? What's left to invent?

It's not a stretch at all, it's true that he invented that particular technology. Nobody said he invented the idea of passing a message from one place/person to another.

I'm not sure why you are being downvoted because this is a very legitimate question. Fortunately it's not hard to see that email, and Tomlinson's contributions, were incredibly novel and have shaped a lot of "good parts" of the internet today.

Although obviously email was conceptually based on a very old notion of communication, embodied, as you point out, by many media that came before it, it had to solve a few small, specific problems inherent in moving messages from one system to another via a simple network protocol.

The use of the "user@domain" notion of identity seems mundane today, but in some important ways it was a huge breakthrough in the way that people thought about humans and the systems that need to work in order for them to be contacted.

Could you elaborate on the the different notions of identity in, say, "chernenko@mcvax.su" vs. "mcvax!moskvax!kremvax!chernenko"?

Is it because the "@" form is more stand-alone while the "!" embeds with it a sense of what you think others might think is notable?

What constitutes a novel invention is a matter of open dispute. I strongly recommend W. Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology, which addresses this, and other questions on, well, the nature of technology.

I just stumbled upon an site "http://www.inventorofemail.com/" which claims that Ray Tomlinson didn't invented email and it was an false claim.

"Fact #2: Ray Tomlinson “did not invent email”, he modified SNDMSG for exchanging text messages across computers - See more at: http://www.inventorofemail.com/claims_about_email.asp#False-...

RFCs 561, 680, 724, and 733 are the antecedents to RFC 822, which remains the basis of every nearly every email sent today. The dates on the earlier RFCs start from 1973, with RFC 733 (what I think was the first one actually agreed upon as a standard rather than a, well, request for comments) merely in 1977, all before the supposed "invention" in 1978. (RFC 822 itself was only 1982).

It's even hard to take the claim that Shiva's invention was the first to mimic inter-office mail seriously: all of the header fields are clearly mentioned in RFC 680.

In other words, the only way that you can even plausibly claim that Shiva invented email is to define email so narrowly that the only candidate is, in fact, his product. This should come across about as absurd as saying that FORTRAN can't be the first programming language because it didn't include an if statement.

That is the website of a person whose claim to have invented email has been widely dismissed.


Correct! It's also notable that his claims just barely stay out of legally actionable material by his insistence on differentiating email from EMAIL (in all caps), and his insistence that EMAIL is an "electronic version of an interoffice mail system". So he's the creator of software that he named "EMAIL", but not an inventor of anything. His claims are full of similar term redefinitions and self-aggrandizing language.

Despite his aggressive campaign to be recognized for something notable other than his participation in pseudoscience, marketing BS and corrupt government organizations, the rest of the world remains unconvinced. He had a single class he was teaching at MIT at the time all the media articles hit, in which he introcuded a new term that he used to aggressively market himself as an expert in an "emerging field". His various sites link between each other as proof of his excellence. This type of self-referential press is a specialty of his. He even directly edited his own Wikipedia article as part of his media campaign.

You'll note that the first paragraph ends in a sentence with a dozen "references". This is how his edits always look and the page was originally full of sentences with 5+ references, which made tracking down legitimate information quite difficult. It's undergone heavy editing since then, but he still drops in for edit wars.

There's a good chance that snake oil is involved if he's anywhere near a project.

Shiva is a dick if ever there was one...I overlapped with him at MIT and never met a more vain publicity seeking a$$hole. He was almost universally despised at MIT.

Aha he is married to Fran Drescher (The Nanny!

Sounds to me like they didn't actually get married. From his wikipedia article:

'Ayyadurai later said it was not "a formal wedding or marriage", but a celebration of their "friendship in a spiritual ceremony with close friends and her family.'

( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiva_Ayyadurai )

an invention does not need to be a completely new concept. A car was invented even after people were able to get from point A to point B via many means. Yet the car is still a big leap forward. Email seems obvious to you now, but at one point there were many obstacles to overcome to make it work.

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