Ray Tomlinson, one of the inventors of email, in 2009 (Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images)

Ray Tomlinson, widely credited as the inventor of email, died this past weekend. He was 74.

By all accounts, Tomlinson was a brilliant man. And he’s being mourned around the world as the person who brought us the @ in our inboxes. The format novak@gizmodo didn’t just invent itself. Tomlinson did that. But the fascinating secret history of email was that the US Defense Department was initially angry that Tomlinson helped create it.

“It wasn’t an assignment at all, he was just fooling around; he was looking for something to do with ARPANET,” Raytheon spokeswoman Joyce Kuzman said in a statement about Tomlinson’s death.

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When Tomlinson showed his early work on email to his coworker at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), Jerry Burchfiel, he was initially warned that he shouldn’t show anyone what he was doing. “Don’t tell anyone!” Burchfiel reportedly said. “This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”

Tomlinson’s death gives us a chance to look at how various innovations come to pass. They are rarely, if ever, the work of one person. And in the case of email, Tomlinson contributed greatly, along with people like Bob Clements of BBN, Dick Watson of SRI International, and Stephen Lukasik of ARPA (now known as Darpa). And they all managed to anger the Department of Defense for quite literally being too ahead of their time.

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Tomlinson was working at BBN, a vital contractor of Darpa for the early internet, when he helped create email. As Craig Partridge points out in an excellent paper for IEEE, “electronic mail existed before networks did.” But email on time-shared computers was all local during the 1960s.

So in July of 1971, Dick Watson at SRI International, another crucial Darpa contractor and one of the first nodes on the ARPANET, published a memo looking for a “Mail Box Protocol” that would allow people to send each other electronic mail through the relatively new ARPANET. Watson’s paper had his ideas, including the assumption that all email would naturally be printed on teletype printers upon delivery.

Watson’s vision for email presumed 72 characters per line of text on a teletype printer, and a maximum of 66 lines. Each new line would be read as a “carriage return,” just as typewriters must physically push to the next line.

Tomlinson saw Watson’s ideas and instantly recognized that there was no need for email to be printed when it reached its destination. Tomlinson went on to develop the use of the @ sign to divide the account name from the host, as well as the protocols that would allow users to send and receive emails.

Throughout 1972 and 1973, people at MIT, BBN, and ARPA would develop and improve upon the protocols and tools to make email work. Tomlinson wrote a file transfer program called CPYnet as part of that process. And these developers would also fight with the Department of Defense over how much network traffic was being eaten up by email.

The explosion of email was swift. In 1974, ARPA asked MITRE to study how the network was being used. They were shocked to find out that roughly 75 percent of the net packets were for email.

I reached out to Steve Lukasik, former director of ARPA during the late 1960s and early 1970s, who told me about the bureaucratic hurdles that the agency faced once they had cracked email’s technical problems. History books often ignore, or don’t fully appreciate, the bureaucratic hurdles that must be jumped to accomplish major technological feats. Al Gore didn’t invent the internet, for example, but without him the bureaucratic barriers wouldn’t have been overcome to privatize it.

Email’s use of 75 percent of network traffic in 1974 “had enormous bureaucratic implications that were initially worrisome,” Lukasik told me. “DoD auditors slapped our wrist for violating DoD procedures. They said we had constructed a communication system, but that was the responsibility of the Defense Communication Agency.”

This was just one of the reasons that the Department of Defense would break out a new network dedicated solely to the military. Darpa was ordered to split ARPANET into “a research network (that continued to be called ARPANET) and a MILNET for military users,” Lukasik said.

“While the ways of bureaucracy are strange, in the case of email the good
guys won,” says Lukasik.