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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

E-Mail Turns 30 Years Old in Fall

LONDON -- As great inventions go, e-mail had a rather ho-hum beginning back in 1971.

In fact, Ray Tomlinson, the American engineer considered the father of e-mail, can't quite recall when the first message was sent, what it said, or even who the recipient was.

"I have no idea what the first one was," he said.

"It might have been the first line from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address for all I know. The only thing I know was it was all in upper case."

Tomlinson, principal engineer at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based BBN Technologies, finds himself in the spotlight again after all these years, having to answer questions about the computer program he designed as it reaches its 30th birthday in the coming weeks.

He modestly calls his baby "no major tour de force." It was just 200 lines of code, he says. And the inspiration -- one computer program to enable file transfers and a second crude messaging program -- already existed, he said.

But the infant programs had their flaws. For example, the message program only enabled a user to send a communique to a colleague's mailbox as long as that mailbox was located on the very same computer as the sender's.

Tomlinson got around this by creating remote personal mailboxes that could send and receive messages via a computer network.

Tomlinson also conceived the idea of using the now-famous "@" symbol to ensure a message was properly sent to a designated recipient.

The end product, he said, was simply the combination of the two existing programs, enabling a person to send a message for the first time to a specified computer user on any computer hooked up to the ARPA Net, the predecessor to today's Internet that was developed by the U.S. Defense Department.

Thirty years on, e-mail has clearly become a vital form of communication.

Last month, e-mail became the only reliable link for many frantic souls during the hijacked plane attacks in the United States.

It connected friends and family in New York and Washington as telephone circuits became overloaded in the hours after three hijacked planes toppled the twin World Trade Center towers and blew apart a section of the Pentagon.

Poignant e-mails from survivors have circulated to family and friends around the world, filling in clues about harrowing escapes and daring rescue attempts.

A week after the Sept. 11 attacks, it was e-mail that helped spread the damaging Nimda computer virus, knocking out corporate computer networks around the globe and inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of damage.

Then there are the thousands of hack-ins -- mostly mere nuisances but some with headline-grabbing results, such as the jamming of popular web sites Yahoo! and CNN in February 2000 or the recent theft of thousands of credit-card numbers from online merchants.

Like all essential communication devices, e-mail has a love-hate relationship with its users. For every pick-me-up message of praise or joke sent electronically it seems there are an equal number of unsolicited e-mail reminders that we can lose weight overnight, make money working from home or earn an honorary college degree.

But back in the autumn of 1971 -- Tomlinson says he can't recall which month -- e-mail was a relatively small success.

The reason, he added, was simply because there were just a few hundred users of the ARPA Net that could put it to use.

And the top-of-the-line modem connection at the time operated at a snail-like 300 baud, roughly 200 times slower than today's standard 56.6 kbps modem.

It made only the most concise message practical.

"Reliance took a few years to happen," said Tomlinson.

It wasn't until the personal computer boom in the mid-1980s that e-mail trickled into the lives of computer enthusiasts and millions of university students.

Another major stage in its development came in the mid-1990s when the first web browsers introduced the World Wide Web to the home-loving couch potato.

As Internet usage grew, so did e-mail.

Over the years, Tomlinson said, complete strangers have sent him notes of thanks and a few of criticism for his invention -- all by e-mail, of course.