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March 11, 2016

You Know Where it's @, but Do You Know How it Got There?

The @ sign, which before 1971 was best known for quoting prices “at a rate of $ each” being symbolized by @$, now is part of the daily lives with email and Twitter.

But how did it become the symbol that separates your name from your domain?

According to Wikipedia -- and for that matter Vint Cerf -- Ray Tomlinson, who recently passed, is to be credited with the use of the @ sign as a separator.

This idea of the symbol representing ‘located at’ in the form user@host is also seen in other tools and protocols; for example, the Unix shell command ssh [email protected] tries to establish an ssh connection to the computer with the hostname example.net using the username jdoe.

In other words, besides your email it helped to manage security services.

However there is more to the value that Ray Tomlinson brought to the Internet per Craig Partridge.

Ray Tomlinson had been at BBN since 1967.  He’s best known for inventing the concept of sending email over a computer network and choosing the @ sign as the way to split the mailbox name from the host name.  But that’s a fraction of his amazing contributions to our field.  Ray was one of a four person team that created TENEX, the first operating system to support virtual memory using paging. He wrote one of the first implementations of TCP and, when he found data being duplicated in the ‘received’ stream, devised methods to ensure that sequence numbers were not duplicated; it remains fundamental to TCP/IP implementations today. He worked on the first object-oriented distributed system and early multimedia email systems.  And I’m sure I’m forgetting at least half a dozen other ways Ray made our world better.

Vint Cerf went on to say that Ray was a long-time and creative contributor to the Internet, operating systems, and many other highly practical applications in the computer science and communications domains. He was a self-effacing and humble man and extraordinary performer in our online world. I will miss his thoughtful, low-key and always helpful counsel.

So the next time you are reaching out to someone via the Internet, you will know who to thank: Ray Tomlinson.  And that is where it came from.

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