Ray Tomlinson, the father of modern email, passed away this week, leaving behind a legacy of billions of email addresses sending billions of emails a day.
Tomlinson’s innovation made electronic communication efficient and addressable, functionality that fostered explosive growth over the next decades. And as often happens when a powerful technology is introduced, the unintended consequences were transformative.
When Tomlinson was a young engineer working at Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN Technologies) with a team dedicated to developing something interesting for the ARPANET, a computer network created for the U.S. government that is considered a precursor to the Internet, it’s hard to imagine that he could foresee the scale and impact that his creation would end up having on the technological world. It started simply as a means of improving a local inter-user mail program called SNDMSG, which was used to get in touch with distant members of his team that wouldn’t answer their phones.
SNDMSG could copy messages into a “mailbox”, which was a file with a particular name that was accessible on the same computer, but in another user’s home directory. What made it different than any other single-computer (non-host, non-network) electronic mail program, which had been around from the early 1960’s, was that users could append to the file and write more material onto the end of the mailbox to continue the message. It was more like a primitive Google Doc than modern email. Tomlinson realized that by combining the SNDMSG system with an experimental file transfer program he had previously worked on called CPYNET, which had no provision for appending to a file, he could create a network-based electronic mail system across the ARPANET. He just needed a way to distinguish the names of the senders and the names of their machines, so that the message would be sure to reach the correct recipient.
For this purpose, Tomlinson chose the @ symbol, elevating what had been an anachronistic historical curiosity to international fame, and a new status as the representative of deterministic data. That choice in 1971 gave birth to the email address and set in motion a series of evolutionary changes that would have the world remembering Ray Tomlinson as not only the father of email, but also the grandfather of deterministic digital marketing:
– 1978: The precursor to ‘email marketing’, Gary Theurk sends out an email to about 400 ARPANET users promoting DEC machines, resulting in $13 million in sales.
– 1990’s: With the advent of the Internet and ecommerce, marketers realize the value of email as a vehicle for one-to-one communication with their customers. This, in combination with the widespread adoption of email, solidified email as the cornerstone of online commerce, reliably producing ROIs as high as 5400%.
– 1999: Email becomes the first truly cross-device media with the introduction of the BlackBerry and begins its decade-long shift to a mobile-first platform.
– 2011: LiveIntent introduces the first dedicated ad server for email that allows publishers to monetize their email newsletter inventory just like web display, only instead of relying on cookies, it uses de-identified deterministic data for targeting and optimization: the hashed email address.
– 2013: CRM Retargeting solutions like Facebook’s Custom Audiences and LiveIntent’s LiveAudience are introduced, advertisers gained the ability to leverage the email address to reach their customer segments in paid media channels, ensuring that they reach their customers when and where they are paying attention.
– 2014: As the online world becomes fragmented across more browsers, devices, and media Facebook launches Atlas, which promises cross-device targeting and measurement at scale, using email address as the anchor for reaching people when and where they are connected.
Today, email is about more than just sending email. This address, which initially existed solely as a way to determine who was the recipient of a piece of electronic mail (or email), evolved into an identifier that allowed users to log in to online platforms and marketplaces. In essence, it became a universal online passport, a person’s online identity, grounded in an underlying framework has changed so little over the years.
There’s no way that Ray Tomlinson could have anticipated the impact his creation would have on the worlds of communication, technology, and marketing, but one thing’s for sure – we wouldn’t be doing what we do if Ray Tomlinson didn’t send that first email 45 years ago.
And for that, we’d like to thank you, Ray.