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The First Email
"A neat idea."

Early Mail Programs
Ray Tomlinson, a Principal Scientist at Raytheon BBN Technologies, sent the first network email in 1971. Tomlinson had already written a mail program for TENEX that, by this time, was running on most machines on the ARPANET. The early mail program consisted of two parts; a program called SNDMSG for sending messages and another program called READMAIL for receiving messages. SNDMSG allowed a user to compose, address, and send a message to other users' mailboxes. However, in the early 70s, a mailbox was simply a file with a particular name. The only way that it differed from a regular file was that other users could only add to the file--they could not read or overwrite what was already there. Like other mail programs at the time, SNDMSG/READMAIL was created for time sharing systems and capable only of handling messages among the various users of individual machines, but it could not transmit messages from one machine to another.

Tomlinson's Idea

Ray Tomlinson

Tomlinson had also worked on an experimental file transfer protocol called CPYNET. CPYNET could send and receive files to computers through a network connection, but did not allow users to add any information to the files as SNDMSG did. An inveterate experimenter and tinker, Tomlinson decided to try a minor hack: combining the two programs to send messages from one machine to another.

It Worked!
In late 1971, Tomlinson sent the first message between two machines that were side-by-side in his Cambridge, MA lab. He sent messages back and forth from one machine to the other until he was satisfied that the program worked. The first email message he sent out of the lab was to the rest of his group announcing the existence of network email and explaining how to use it, including the use of the @ sign to separate the user's name from the host computer name. Now there was nothing to prevent the sending of messages out to the wider network.

Tomlinson says he invented email, "Mostly because it seemed like a neat idea." No one was asking for email. Tomlinson recognized a possibility and made it real.