A Conversation With The Inventor Of Email

Last Updated on April 18, 2021 by Jason

One of the greatest communication tools ever to exist was developed by a man named Ray Tomlinson, who invented the idea of email back in 1971. Graduating from MIT, Ray is one of the forefathers of the internet, and has worked on a number of other protocols beyond email.

Interestingly, while email may be the reason that he is so well known, it’s not the toughest challenge he has faced. In the Q&A below, we talk to Ray and about his vision for the future of email. He also rebukes the claim that he has changed society, and gives us a sneak peek at what he is currently working on.

Q: What was your original vision for email, and has this been fulfilled?

I’m not entirely sure that there was actually a vision. It was just a hack, a fun thing to try that took a few hours. All in all it was less than a day that was spread over a couple of weeks, and the idea behind it was the practicality behind sending messages to the same computer. What if someone was at another PC, maybe on the other side of the country? It was going to be like telephone, but they wouldn’t have to be there to answer the call.

Q: When did you realise it was going to be big?

I never really thought of it as a big idea at the start because there weren’t many people using computers. This meant that the idea was only as big as the network. It depended on having people using it. It wasn’t even called email, it was called messages or mail. I never even documented creating the program itself. It was only later in the 90s when people started asking where email started that a timestamp was put on it.

Q: How many email addresses do you use?

I have three that I don’t use, and three that I do. The ones that I don’t use are the ones that you get from ISP.

Q: What are your thoughts on spam, and what should be done about it?

I get annoyed when I receive spam, like anyone else. However, it’s a tough issue because the solutions that we’ve come up with thus far aren’t really that effective. Either they filter out too much of the good stuff or they aren’t effective at all when they should be. They basically aren’t doing what humans can do. I also don’t think that legislation is going to work. I would like to think that people have enough common sense not to spam, but of course they don’t. We might still be able to come up with a technological solution, but we will just have to see. I personally don’t have the time to spend on it, so someone else will have to come up with it. I am watching that space though.

Q: How do you see email evolving? What do you think it’s going to look like in 10 years?

If spam doesn’t kill email completely, then it’s probably not going to be all that different. You might see other forms of communication take over that are more closely integrated, like instant messaging for example. Instant communication is a lot better than emails that can take a few hours sometimes. People would like there to be more seamless interaction between devices, which means that they don’t like having to switch modes all the time. I think that bandwidth is going to go up, and cable modems will become more common. Technology will help improve these kinds of services.

Q: What do you think of instant messaging?

I don’t personally use it, because I got put off when I installed a browser that straight away took up half of my screen with instant messaging. The closest I’ve come to instant messaging is certain chat services. But I didn’t think that there were fast enough.

Q: What do you think needs to be done to make email more secure?

The thing about securing email is that you can’t fix this with technology. It’s too convenient. You’ve got an attachment in an email that does something for you, which is what hackers use to pass on a virus. You can’t get rid of this.

Q: Many people think that email has changed society. Do you agree?

I don’t think that there is one answer to that. It has had an effect, yes, but I don’t think that people are foundationally different now to what they were before. They just have more ways of communicating, so perhaps they communicate more? Maybe they have found friendships and maintained those friendships in places that were otherwise off-limits beforehand. You simply have a bigger community to draw from, and you can tap into resources a lot more readily.

Q: Is high-tech research just as exciting now as it was back then?

Yes, but the subject matter is different. It could be said that it’s more exciting now because there is just so much more going on. There is this wonderful tool now, the internet, and it’s a great resource that can be used to link everything together.

Q: What are you currently working on?

Distributed systems that make the most of tools in a variety of locations around the country to work on solutions to issues. Of course, trying to make this happen can be a challenge, but getting it happening is even harder. This is because the system is based on agents that have specialised, but limited, expertise.

Q: What else are you into right now?

I try to read everything and anything that I can get a hold of, from archelogy to biology. I don’t really see any of this is something that I’m currently into or working on, but I find particular subjects intriguing, like biological computing. I would also say that I take an interest in quantum computing as well.

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