Telecommunications, Industrial Revolutions, and Ray Tomlinson

Today I learned of the death of Ray Tomlinson, the father of email.

Ray Tomlinson, inventor of email, 1941-2016
Ray Tomlinson, inventor of email, 1941-2016

As one who is fascinated by the idea of “multiple industrial revolutions”, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between email and the telephone – the iconic telecommunications tools of the second (electrical) and third (digital) industrial revolutions. (I have written posts on the fourth and fifth on this blog)

Many of us are familiar with Alexander Graham Bell and this tale:

“On March 10, 1876, three days after his patent was issued, Bell succeeded in getting his telephone to work, using a liquid transmitter similar to Gray’s design. Vibration of the diaphragm caused a needle to vibrate in the water, varying the electrical resistance in the circuit. When Bell spoke the famous sentence “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you” into the liquid transmitter,Watson, listening at the receiving end in an adjoining room, heard the words clearly.”

Today is a good day to learn about what Ray Tomlinson pulled off in 1971 – a comparable, but largely unknown, tale.

“The first email Ray Tomlinson sent was a test e-mail. It was not preserved and Tomlinson describes it as insignificant, something like “QWERTYUIOP”. This is commonly misquoted as “The first e-mail was QWERTYUIOP”. Tomlinson later commented that these “test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them.”

The tale of Bell is legend. The tale of Tomlinson is obscure. And at this point, we don’t really have any way of knowing who, or what, will emerge as one of the pivotal moments in the development of telecommunications in the current industrial revolution. Any more than we could have known in 1975 that Tomlinson’s idea would permeate the world to the extent that it has.

It is also worth pointing out that the big communications breakthrough of the first industrial revolution (mechanical) was not so much an exercise in telecommunications, as it was mass communications – the story of Gutenberg and the printing press is also the stuff of legend – – perhaps even more so than the story of Bell.

Perhaps Gutenberg and Bell have achieved a level of fame that won’t be possible for Tomlinson. Perhaps the world simply moved slowly enough in those times, for events to be considered historically significant, in a mainstream way that Tomlinson’s contributions simply will not.

Perhaps we will have no memory of the first moment two avatars encountered eachother in virtual space. Perhaps that will never be considered a pivotal moment. Though, as I understand it, it had something to do with the game Maze War –

Anyway, these are my thoughts on this the day I learned of Ray Tomlinson’s death. 22,498 read messages in my inbox today – that’s really quite something. And, with any luck, I won’t hear a peep out of my darn telephone today…



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Author: Pete

Editor-in-Chief, Lead Software Developer and Artistic Director @