ILITI KAKO JE POSLATA PRVA E-MAIL PORUKA
Three, maybe four times in recent history,
a new technology has been introduced that has fundamentally transformed
human society by changing the way people communicate with each other. For
the most part, the moment in which these new technologies came into being
are preserved with a kind of clarity and drama that is both thrilling and
There is Samuel B. Morse and the first telegram. Delivered on May 24,
1844, the message read "What hath god wrought!" Morse knew that he was
And there was the dawn of the telephone era, heralded by Alexander
Graham Bell's less grand, though still legendary, summons to his assistant
on March 10, 1876: "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you."
While the exact wording of Guglielmo Marconi's first wireless
transmission in 1895 is not the stuff of legend, it didn't take long for
Marconi to be heaped with honors and awards, topped off by a Nobel Prize
for physics in 1909. And even 30 years later the inauguration of wireless
service between England and South Africa felt like an historic event to
the participants. "We speak across time and space. . . . May the new power
promote peace between all nations," read the Marconigram sent from Sir
Edgar Walton, high commissioner of South Africa, to General J. B. M.
Hertzog, South Africa's prime minister, in 1924.
Sometime in late 1971, a computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson sent the
first e-mail message. "I sent a number of test messages to myself from one
machine to the other," he recalls now. "The test messages were entirely
forgettable. . . . Most likely the first message was QWERTYIOP or
It seems doubtful that "QWERTYIOP" will make it into the history books.
And Tomlinson's name hardly lives in the public mind. When he is
remembered at all, it is as the man who picked @ as the locator symbol in
electronic addresses. In truth though, he is the inventor of e-mail, the
application that launched the digital information revolution. And yet the
breakthrough he made was such a simple evolutionary step that hardly
anyone noticed it till later. At the time, it barely registered with Ray
How it Happened
Tomlinson worked for Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), the company hired
by the United States Defense Department in 1968 to build ARPANET, the
precursor to the Internet. In 1971 he was tinkering around with an
electronic message program called SNDMSG, which he had written to allow
programmers and researchers who were working on Digital PDP-10s—one of the
early ARPANET computers—to leave messages for each other.
But this was not e-mail, exactly. Like a number of then existing
electronic message programs, the oldest dating from the early 1960s,
SNDMSG only worked locally; it was designed to allow the exchange of
messages between users who shared the same machine. Such users could
create a text file and deliver it to a designated "mail box."
"A mailbox was simply a file with a particular name," Tomlinson later
wrote. "Its only special property was . . . [users] could write more
material onto the end of the mailbox, but they couldn't read or overwrite
what was already there."
When Tomlinson sat down to play around with SNDMSG, he had been working
on an experimental file transfer protocol called CYPNET, for transferring
files among linked computers at remote sites within ARPANET. (At the time,
the ARPANET consisted of 15 nodes, located at places like UCLA in
California, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and at BBN in
Cambridge, Massachusetts.) "The idea occurred to me that CYPNET could
append material to a mailbox file as readily as SNDMSG could," explained
The way CYPNET was originally written, it sent and received files, but
had no provision for appending to a file. So he set out to adapt CYPNET to
use SNDMSG to deliver messages to mailboxes on remote machines, through
"Adding the missing piece was a no-brainer," according to Tomlinson.
"Just a minor addition to the protocol."
What Tomlinson did next, if he had fully grasped its significance,
might have earned him a place alongside the giants of communication
First, he chose the @ symbol to distinguish between messages addressed
to mailboxes in the local machine and messages that were headed out onto
the network. "The @ sign seemed to make sense," he recalled. "I used the @
sign to indicate that the user was 'at' some other host rather than being
Then he sent himself an e-mail message. BBN had two PDP-10 computers
wired together through the ARPANET. "The first message was sent between
two machines that were literally side-by-side. The only physical
connection they had, however, was through the ARPANET," according to
The message flew out via the network between two machines in the same
room in Cambridge; and the message was QWERTYIOP. Or something like that.
A Natural Phenomenon
Once Tomlinson was satisfied that SNDMSG worked on the network, he sent
a message to colleagues letting them know about the new feature, with
instructions for placing an @ in between the user's login name and the
name of his host computer. "The first use of network mail," says
Tomlinson, "announced its own existence."
Tomlinson's new program almost instantly became the first killer app.
"After we delivered the enhanced version of SNDMSG to other sites, (so
that there was someone out there to talk to) virtually all my
communication was via e-mail," he remembers. Two years later, a study
found that 75 percent of all traffic on ARPANET was e-mail.
But if it caught on like wildfire, it somehow managed to do so almost
without notice. For the engineers and scientists who quickly adopted it as
the preferred mode of day-to-day communications, it mostly felt like a
logical outgrowth of the development of ARPANET.
In fact, it took almost five years for the builders and designers of
ARPANET to sit back and realize that in many ways, e-mail had become the
real raison d'etre for the new computer network.
"A surprising aspect of the message service is the unplanned,
unanticipated, and unsupported nature of its birth and early growth,"
reads a report on e-mail written for ARPA in 1976. "It just happened, and
its early history has seemed more like the discovery of a natural
phenomenon than the deliberate development of a new technology."
One reason that it was adopted so quickly was that it perfectly suited
the communications needs and style of the engineers who built ARPANET.
In a paper published in 1978 by the Institute of Electrical and
Electronic Engineers, two of the important figures in the creation of the
ARPANET, J. C. R. Licklider and Albert Vezza, explained the popularity of
e-mail. "One of the advantages of the message systems over letter mail was
that, in an ARPANET message, one could write tersely and type imperfectly,
even to an older person in a superior position and even to a person one
did not know very well, and the recipient took no offense. . . . Among the
advantages of the network message services over the telephone were the
fact that one could proceed immediately to the point without having to
engage in small talk first, that the message services produced a
preservable record, and that the sender and receiver did not have to be
available at the same time."
A report released that same year provides one of the earliest
indications that ARPANET developers were beginning to realize precisely
what they had created: "There is little doubt that the techniques of
network mail developed in connection with the ARPANET program are going to
sweep the country and drastically change the techniques used for
intercommunication in the public and private sectors."
Tomlinson Looks Back
Tomlinson still works at BBN, which was acquired last year by GTE. A
principal engineer for BBN, he is currently working on a project that
involves "developing an architecture for quickly building distributed
information integration and visualization tools." In the nearly three
decades that have elapsed since he invented e-mail, he has worked on
everything from network protocols to supercomputer design.
Recently, Tomlinson answered a few questions about his role as the
inventor of e-mail. The interviews were conducted, appropriately enough,
Asked what inspired his invention, his response comes back as
undramatic as the event itself: "Mostly because it seemed like a neat
idea," he writes. "There was no directive to 'go forth and invent
Like many of the men involved in the creation of APRANET, he looks back
on the late 1960s and early 1970s as a golden age in both computer
research and their own careers. "I agree that that era was particularly
productive for ARPA and its contractors," he writes, "The emphasis was on
'advanced research' and high-risk, high-payoff projects were the norm.
That emphasis has eroded over time and there is less risk-taking . . .
things are not as exciting today."
Finally, what of his place in history? Morse, Bell, Marconi. And
"The pace [of progress] has accelerated tremendously since the [names]
you mention. This means that any single development is stepping on the
heels of the previous one and is so closely followed by the next that most
advances are obscured," writes the inventor of e-mail, modestly. "I think
that few individuals will be remembered."
But he hasn't quite given up hope. "I am curious to find out if I am
wrong," he adds.