IN THE realm of technology, the smallest incremental progress can occasionally cause the tectonic plates of history to shift dramatically, leading entire landscapes to change. Just such an infinitesimally small step – which has since translated into a giant leap for mankind – was taken 50 years ago, in early 1971, when the first “network e-mail” was sent out.
That came about when Ray Tomlinson, a tech nerd from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was working for a Massachusetts-based technology firm, used the @ symbol to send a mail between two machines. He was effectively sending a mail to himself: the two machines were barely ten feet apart and were “connected” only by the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), a US government- led project that proved the precursor to today’s Internet of computers. The @ symbol, which we invoke unthinkingly while sending e-mails today, served to separate the user name from the host name. It has since become the distinguishing characteristic of all e-mail IDs that abide by the user@host protocol.
There had been earlier instances of mails being sent to numeric mailboxes within a single machine, but there were no computer networks as we know them today until ARPANET came along in 1969 as part of a defence project.
The social and economic significance of that first “network e-mail” can be seen in the exponential growth in its popularity. In 2020, an estimated 306.4 billion e-mails were sent and received each day, according to consumer data firm Statista; that number is expected to rise to 319.6 billion a day in 2021, and further to 361.6 billion a day by 2024. As the Internet Society, which inducted Tomlinson into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012, noted, his e-mail program “brought about a complete revolution, fundamentally changing the way people communicate, including the way businesses, from huge corporations to tiny momand- pop shops, operate, and the way millions of people shop, bank, and keep in touch with friends and family, whether they are across town or across oceans.”