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On the passing of Mr. Ray Tomlinson

This month robbed us of an internet elder. Ray Tomlinson passed away at age 74, victim of cardiac arrest. The word ‘pioneer’ seems small when referring to someone who helped build the very foundations of what is now a planetary megastructure.

Over a year ago, the first post on this blog paid homage to Ray Tomlinson. His name was inescapable, as he is the very inventor of our subject matter: email. And the way Tomlinson went about inventing email is symptomatic of the romantic and daring spirit of the information technology prophets.

The year was 1971, and the place was ARPANET – The American military’s foray into what would become the internet. At the time, Ray Tomlinson was one of the engineers assigned to develop the TCP/IP protocols. But as a side project, he started working in a messaging program. There were no angel investors, brainstorming sessions or whiteboard explorations. Tomlinson merely saw a need for electronic postage, and went about delivering it. His famous quote upon showing his email program to a colleague tells the tale of a man moved not by opportunity but by passion – “Don’t show this to anyone, it’s not what we’re supposed to be working on”.

What Tomlinson’s pet project brought to the world is widely known. During their first outbreak into the mass market, internet and email were almost synonymous. Applied to the professional sector, email brought with it a precision and interconnectedness that shaped all current and future work models. And no matter how many of the web’s platforms we find ourselves spending our time on, it is almost always our email inbox that provides an insight into our very lives – an accidental journal.

This is not to say email is a universally-adored tool. Attempts have been made to cut it out of organizations entirely, although these seem to be isolated. And the occasional prophets of the end of email find themselves on a much larger struggle than they anticipated.

Throughout our posts on this blog we first narrowed the various pains associated with the use of email. The second act attempted to point the directions the possible solutions should be taking. It is perhaps fitting to embark on a new stage, on the event of Ray Tomlinson’s passing. We will now take a trip throughout the human landscape, rather than the technical. We will be providing you with interviews with people that, very much like Mr. Tomlinson, do not settle for the status quo. With email as the trigger, we will explore issues of productivity and functionality. Stay tuned for more!