A Conversation With The Inventor Of Email

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Ray Tomlinson gave society one of the greatest communication tools in history. He invented email back in 1971 -- essentially fostering global business communication and turning the Internet into a digital kitchen table for far-flung family members.

The MIT grad is one of the forefathers of the Internet, working on ARPANET, the forerunner to the Internet, along with workstations, super computers and a slew of protocols.

But email may be his greatest legacy -- if not the toughest project he's ever worked on. Alexander Graham Bell became a household name -- someone children learn about in school -- because he invented the telephone. But consider that in this high-tech era there are more emails sent every day than telephone calls. That definitely gives Tomlinson his own place in history, if not a life of fame and fortune.

In this Q&A, the man who was honored earlier this year for a lifetime of innovation by Discover magazine, says he's irked by spam and hopes for a technical solution. He also talks about his vision for the future of email, dismisses claims that he's changed society and updates us on the distributed computing project he's working on today at BBN Technologies in Cambridge, Mass., where he's worked for the past 35 years and is their much-lauded principal engineer.

Q: What was your vision for email, and has the reality of it lived up to your expectations?

I'm not sure there was a vision there. It was a hack -- a neat thing to try out. ...It probably took four, five, six hours to do. Less than a day spread over a week or two -- when I had a spare moment. The idea was this facility had proved its usefulness sending messages to the same computer. What about when someone was on another computer, maybe across the country? It would be like the telephone but they wouldn't have to be there to answer the phone.

Q: When did you realize how big email was going to be?

It never seemed big at the beginning because there weren't many computers. It was only as big as the network. It depended upon having people with access. As an idea, it caught on right away, but there were so few people on the network... We didn't call it email. If we called it anything we called it mail or messages. The contrast with snail mail wasn't necessary then... I never documented the creation of the program. In 1993, someone started to ask where email started. I knew I had done the program... but later various people came along and there were a lot of additional ideas that went into it.

Q: How many email addresses do you have?

I have three that I use and three that I don't. They're three come-along-for-the-ride email addresses that you get from an ISP.

Q: How do you feel about spam and what should be done about it?

I get irked when I get spam. It's a tough problem and I'd like to see a solution come along. So far the solutions aren't working. Either they filter too much or they're not effective when they should be. They don't do what humans would do. Why did that email come through? And why didn't that legitimate one get through? No, I don't think legislation will work. I hate legislative solutions. It just doesn't sit well. I'd like to think people have the common sense not to spam, but obviously they don't. It's still possible we may have a technological solution for it. I would like to see that. I'm not spending any time on it myself. The other stuff I'm working on now is more interesting to me. I didn't have any association with email after the late '70s. I watched it from afar but I didn't participate.

Q: How do you see email evolving? What will it look like 10 years from now?

If it doesn't get killed off from spam, it probably won't be a lot different. You may see it more closely integrated with other forms of communication, though, like instant messaging. Once email is answered, you could continue the conversation more immediately, like with instant messaging. Simultaneous correspondence is a lot better than a few emails in a few hours. Or maybe you'll get an email and press a button and make a phone call... not with Verizon, but over the Internet. People would like more seamless interaction between the tools. They don't like being in a particular mode and having to switch to another. I want to specify what I want to do. I don't care how it happens... Bandwidth will go up. DSL is becoming more common. Cable modems are more common. Technology there will improve those services.

Q: What do you think of instant messaging?

I don't use it myself. I got turned off when I installed some browser that insisted with cluttering my screen up with instant messaging. The closest I've come to IM is some chat services. They were not fast enough. They weren't instant to me. I think people who use it are very happy with it. It fills an important niche.

Q: What can be done to make email more secure and cut down on the distribution of viruses and worms?

The insecure part of email is not something you can fix with technology. It's just so convenient. You can have an attachment in an email that does something for you. The attraction with that tempts people to click on an application... and get a virus. Anything you can think of to tag that as a virus is not going to be used. You'd have to have the cooperation of the hacker for that to work. And if your ISP threw away every attachment, that wouldn't work because email would lose its utility as a communication tool.

Q: A lot of people say email has changed society. Do you buy into that?

I think there will never be an answer to that. It's had an effect. I don't think people are fundamentally different now than they would have been. They simply communicate more. Maybe they've made friends and maintain relationships that they wouldn't have. But bad guys are still bad guys. Good guys are still good guys. Friendly people are still friendly. Just because they can be friendly over email and not a telephone [isn't that much of a difference]. You just have a larger community to draw from. If you have problems or are looking for answers, you have additional opportunities to find those answers. It's like having a library in your hometown or not. If it's not there and you have to make a trip to another town, you might not do it. You can tap into resources more readily. People have found answers to questions and email has been part of that solution.

Q: Is high-tech research as exciting to you now as it was back in the late '60s and early '70s when you were working on ARPANET and email?

Yeah, the subjects are different. This may be more exciting because there's so much happening all at once. We have this wonderful tool - the Internet. It's been around in one form or another since about '74. That's when the first networks were hooked together. It's just a wonderful resource. Think of ways to hook things together. Think of ways to get information.

Q: What are you working on now?

Distributed systems that use tools in various places around the country and work out solutions to problems. Trying to get it to happen is a challenge, but getting it to happen is tremendous. The system is based on agents, which are software applications that have certain expertise to work out solutions, like scheduling. Other agents know how to take a problem and break it down into smaller problems. They talk with each other and give each other answers. One agent will have access to specific information so it will be able to answer specific questions. We're actually working on solving the Department of Defense's logistical problems. We have a particular focus, but the overall techniques are general and could be adapted to other scenarios... We're working on both Linux and Windows and it's written in Java so it's relatively platform independent.

Q: Does it bother you that Ray Tomlinson is not a household name despite the contributions you've made?

No, it doesn't bother me. It's a geek thing. Computer nerds know that I've done this. I've gotten emails from individuals who've run across this fact. They say, 'It's great what you did. Why don't you do something about spam?' I'm not a household name. I wouldn't say it has brought me no fame and fortune, but it's not what most people think of when you say those words. It's kind of neat to have people talking about what you did and have people interested in it. It's not the center of my life.

Q: What is the center of your life?

I'm not sure I have a center. I just do what I do. I play around with computers and do some music and a little golfing.

Q: Was email the biggest thing that you've worked on?

I think there were bigger things -- things that took more effort. The workstation that I designed and built back around 1980 -- that was the biggest single thing I've done. It was a two-year effort. And it worked and it was useful. We never tried making a product out of it but it did serve our researchers... It was fun playing around with the super computer design. It didn't pan out, but it expanded my own knowledge. Everything has been interesting. I can't single out any one thing.

Q: What else interests you right now?

I read about anything I can get my hands on, from biology to archeology. I see none of these as something I'll directly work on... but biological computing is intriguing. And I'm interested in quantum computing too.

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