Ray Tomlinson, widely credited as the inventor of email, died this past weekend. He was 74.
By all accounts, Tomlinson was a brilliant man. And he’s being mourned around the world as the person who brought us the @ in our inboxes. The format novak@gizmodo didn’t just invent itself. Tomlinson did that. But the fascinating secret history of email was that the US Defense Department was initially angry that Tomlinson helped create it.
“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 statement about Tomlinson’s death.
When Tomlinson showed his early work on email to his coworker at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), Jerry Burchfiel, he was initially warned that he shouldn’t show anyone what he was doing. “Don’t tell anyone!” Burchfiel reportedly said. “This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”
Tomlinson’s death gives us a chance to look at how various innovations come to pass. They are rarely, if ever, the work of one person. And in the case of email, Tomlinson contributed greatly, along with people like Bob Clements of BBN, Dick Watson of SRI International, and Stephen Lukasik of ARPA (now known as Darpa). And they all managed to anger the Department of Defense for quite literally being too ahead of their time.