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Remembering Ray Tomlinson, the man who created e-mail and @

Ray Tomlinson was widely considered to be the father of modern e-mail. 

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An undated photo provided by Raytheon BBN Technologies shows Raymond Tomlinson. Tomlinson, the inventor of modern email and selector of the "@" symbol, has died. Raytheon Co., his employer, on Sunday, March 6, 2016, confirmed his death.

Raytheon/the Internet Hall of Fame

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Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email as we know it, died Saturday. 

Mr. Tomlinson, who had been working for defense contractor company Raytheon at the time of his death, was a young computer programmer when he came up with the idea of e-mail in 1971.

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While the possibility of sending messages to someone on the same computer had existed for nearly a decade by then, Tomlinson imagined that the system would be all the more helpful if there were a way to send messages to someone on a different computer. But it wasn’t an intentional creation.

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“It wasn’t an assignment at all, he was just fooling around; he was looking for something to do with ARPANET,” Raytheon spokeswoman Joyce Kuzman said in a 1998 Forbes profile of Tomlinson, referring a precursor to the Internet developed by the US Defense Department.

And when the computer engineer showed a colleague his work, he famously said, “Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”

One of his most iconic contributions, aside from e-mail itself, is the “at,” or @, sign. He chose that symbol to connect the username with the online destination address. Now, it’s been adopted to platforms beyond e-mail, including modern apps like Twitter and Instagram.

The process of his invention began by sending messages between two computers in his office, as Tomlinson told NPR in 2009, using ARPANET.

"The keyboards were about 10 feet apart,” he said. “I could wheel my chair from one to the other and type a message on one, and then go to the other, and then see what I had tried to send."

The first e-mail ever sent? Unfortunately, it was not memorable, according to Tomlinson. He used gibberish in the first test messages he sent to himself, including random characters on the keyboard with a few phrases from the Gettysburg Address lettered in.

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"The first e-mail is completely forgettable," he told NPR’s Guy Raz. "And, therefore, forgotten."

According to the Internet Hall of Fame, Tomlinson was born in 1941 in Amsterdam, New York. He received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1963. There, he participated in an internship program with IBM. He later earned his master of science in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was working at  Bolt Beranek & Newman, which later became a subsidiary of Raytheon, at the time of his breakthrough.

In 2000, Tomlinson received the George R. Stibitz Computer Pioneer Award from the American Computer Museum. Other awards include a Webby Award from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Science, and an Innovation award from Discover magazine, and the Eduard-Rhein Cultural Award.  Tomlinson was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012.

"It is with great sadness we acknowledge the passing of our colleague and friend, Ray Tomlinson. A true technology pioneer, Ray was the man who brought us email in the early days of networked computers.," his employer Raytheon said in a statement. "His work changed the way the world communicates and yet, for all his accomplishments, he remained humble, kind, and generous with his time and talents, He will be missed by one and all."

Despite his great acclaim, Tomlinson’s colleagues say he was very modest. He lived in Lincoln, Mass., raised miniature sheep, and surprisingly did not use e-mail often.