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banner Monday, 8 October, 2001, 17:27 GMT 18:27 UK
H@ppy birthday to you
E-mail is 30 years old this month
E-mail is 30 years old this month
To most of us, electronic mail is a relatively recent phenomenon. But the first e-mail was sent 30 years ago, after a programmer came up with the "@" symbol format for e-mail addresses, writes BBC News Online's technology correspondent Mark Ward.

Can you remember the first e-mail message you ever sent? Unless you are a very recent convert to the internet, then probably not.

If the subject and content of that first electronic epistle escapes you, don't worry, you are in good company.

Finnish think the @ symbol looks like a sleeping cat
Finnish think the @ symbol looks like a sleeping cat
Ray Tomlinson can't recall his first e-mail either but, with due respect to yourself, it was certainly more significant.

Mr Tomlinson has been called the father of e-mail because, back in 1971, he invented the software that allowed messages to be sent between computers.

He didn't invent e-mail itself. That had been around since 1965 when Fernando Corbato and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a program to let the individual users of the institution's Compatible Timesharing System (CTSS) swap messages.

But that program only let people using one machine communicate with each other.

Message log

Ray Tomlinson made it possible to swap messages between machines in different locations; between universities, across continents, and oceans.

At the time Mr Tomlinson was working for Boston-based Bolt, Beranek and Newman, which was helping to develop Arpanet, the forerunner of the modern internet.

Koreans have named the @ symbol after the snail
Koreans named the @ symbol after the snail
He had been working on a program called SNDMSG, which, like that developed for CTSS, let all the users of one machine leave messages for each other. At the same time, he was refining a method of transferring files from one machine to another across a network. Putting the two together Mr Tomlinson came up with the first e-mail program.

Just as important as the 200 lines of code that made up the e-mail software was Mr Tomlinson's elegant way of organising the addresses of people and the computers that held their e-mail account.

The Model 33 Teletype keyboard connected to the computer Mr Tomlinson was using only had about 12 punctuation characters. Out of this limited pool he plumped for the @ symbol which has since become an icon for the internet age - as well as launching a thousand naff company names.

The advantages of using this symbol are manifold. For a start, it makes mail addresses much easier to remember than any scheme based on large strings of numbers. Its separation of the person getting the mail from the machine they are using also helps organise the addressing scheme of the whole internet.

First address

Mr Tomlinson's e-mail address was tomlinson@bbn-tenexa. BBN was his employer, and Tenex the operating system used by machines at the company. The more familiar .com, and so on came much later.

Like the telephone before it, e-mail has brought people together
Like the telephone, e-mail has brought people together
But even though a lot of details of those first mail systems are known, the text of the first message has been lost. Mr Tomlinson sent this historic message to himself from one machine to another sometime in October 1971. He said the text of this first message was "completely forgettable" but suspects it said something like 'qwertyuiop' or 'testing 1-2-3'.

As a harbinger of a new epoch in communications this does not compare well with the first telegram which read: "What hath God wrought!"; or even with the "Mr Watson, come here; I want you" uttered by Alexander Graham Bell over the first phone line.

Despite this, e-mail soon proved its worth and it swiftly became the most popular application on the fledgling net which, at that time, linked together computers at just 15 sites. Today, there are tens of millions of computers and e-mail is still the most popular application.

Experts think it will keep on growing. US Market research firm IDC predicts the number of e-mail addresses to grow from about 505 million in 2002 to 1.2 billion by 2005.

Change for the worse?

The internet, with its multimedia websites and sophisticated electronic commerce, is very different today to its incarnation 30 years ago.

Not all these changes are for the better. Anyone with an e-mail account has probably received unsolicited commercial e-mail, or spam, offering them pornography, get-rich-quick schemes or dubious herbal remedies.

But the popularity of plain text e-mail messages, which make up the bulk of those sent, show why the net has been such a huge success. They are convenient and leave a record that they have been sent; and now many of us can't live without them. It clearly answers a primal need to communicate, to keep in touch and socialise.

And that is one message coming through loud and clear.

See also:

05 Apr 01 | Business
US mail mulls delivery cut
21 Feb 01 | UK Politics
'Hate' e-mails to be outlawed
01 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
Warning over e-mail snooping
15 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Press send to censor
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