Sunday, March 13, 2016

Inventor of email has died

Ray Tomlinson
In my post of February 6, 2016, titled Pioneer in AI has died, I wrote about Marvin Minsky, the founding father of artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, another pioneer has recently died -- one whose invention has had an impact on the lives of everyone who is reading this post, as well as most other people in the world.

On March 5, 2016 Ray Tomlinson, the man who invented email, died aged 74.

In the numerous articles about him that have been published recently, the other aspect of his invention that has been focused on is his choice of the @ symbol for use in email addresses. For choosing articles, information and ideas to share with our students, it is difficult to decide whether to focus on his particular achievements, the impact those achievements have had, the characteristics he had that made him an innovator, or his particular choice of this symbol, which has become the sign of the internet age. Whichever you choose, there are articles to focus on.

Here is just a small sampling of the articles I have already gathered to work with in my lessons:

1) Email inventor Ray Tomlinson dies at 74 from the BBC news website
This is a fairly short, straightforward news item with the basic facts about Ray Tomlinson and his invention of email. What I found particularly interesting about this article is that at the end there are the following questions for readers:

Do you have a funny, interesting, or shocking story about an email you have sent or received? Do you regret sending an email, or did you send an email that changed your life? We want to hear your email stories. Contact us on

This could be a very good writing activity for students; perhaps they could first discuss ideas in the classroom, and colleagues could ask questions to elicit more details or further information. After the lesson they could write their story as a homework assignment - or be inspired to send their story to BBC news for possible publication (quite motivating!).

2) The Man Who Made You Put Away Your Pen from National Public Radio
This is not only an article, it is also the text of an interview with Ray Tomlinson on the National Public Radio program. The recording of this interview is also at this site (4:03). In the interview, Tomlinson explains how and why he developed email, as well as why he chose the @ symbol to separate the name of the sender from the name of the machine.

This is a good basis from which students could discuss how ideas are transformed into reality, and how necessity is truly "the mother of invention."

3) How One Man Saved the '@' Symbol from Time magazine website
For further information about the choice of the @ symbol for email - thus making it one of the most recognized symbols on the internet - this article focuses on why this symbol in particular was chosen (linking back to the NPR article).

This is an aspect of this innovation that might not be as well known to our engineering students, but is in any case very relevant in discussing the impact of email.

4) merchant@florence wrote it first 500 years ago from The Guardian
As a follow-up to the discussion about the choice of @ for email is the information in this article about when this symbol first appeared, and how it was used.

According to Giorgio Stabile, a professor of the history of science at La Sapienza University in Rome, the symbol was used as long ago as May 4, 1536 as an indication of a measure of weight or volume. This is certainly a fascinating aspect of impact analysis!

In addition to these articles - and so many others - there are links to Ray Tomlinson's account of how and why he invented what is now known as email, and why he chose the @ symbol for addresses. This information could be used for writing summaries and practicing relative clauses (see an explanation of my ideas in the posts Pioneer in AI has died, February 6, 2016 and in Billions in Change, February 10, 2016).

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