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Inventor brought us happiness and heartaches — one @ a time

grubaugh new picBy DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    Ray Tomlinson changed our lives forever.
    He helped create one of the most beloved-yet-despised products of our generation. He made our work lives more convenient even as he made them more difficult.
    He boosted our social interaction in ways that none of us could have imagined — and in ways that not all of us wanted.
    The U.S. Postal Service, I’m sure, never sent him a Christmas card. Scammers and terrorists took advantage of his effort. And if Hillary Clinton is ever brought up before a federal grand jury, it’s likely she’ll have Ray to thank.
    His invention was email — perhaps the most ubiquitous creation of the past half century and certainly one that will have lasting impact. You could argue that text message capability ranks up there, but texting doesn’t have quite the same permanence as email. (That is, if any of cyberspace has permanence.)
    Tomlinson, a computer engineer, died last month at the age of 74. Oddly, the death was barely a mention in most newspapers, and it should have been given greater play.
    Perhaps it’s because he isn’t always given full credit.
    In 1971, Tomlinson was working for Bolt Beranek and Newman, a pioneering technology company, as a contractor working with ARPANET, an early data communications network. ARPANET implemented the communications protocols that serve as some of the foundation for today’s Internet, which  links billions of devices worldwide.
    Tomlinson was the guy who picked the @ symbol from the computer keyboard to denote sending messages from one computer to another. Years later, others perfected the processes that led to widespread use, but the @ symbol is still part of it all.
    Tomlinson didn’t create the word “email,” he simply created a system allowing messages to be sent from one computer to another. He had no idea the significance of what he’d done and once told an interviewer the messages he first sent were so inconsequential he couldn’t remember the messages themselves.
    Today, we build our lives around such messages. You turn on your computer each day, what’s the first thing you do? Read your mail. Socially, it helps us stay connected with family and friends — a great joy in life.
    If the Postal Service eventually dies off, it will be because email was its undoing. Why spend 49 cents on a stamp when you can send email for free? People — sad to say — don’t hand-write letters the way they once did. Typing on a computer is much easier.
    Email will always be with us. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who is being hounded years later for receiving classified emails on her personal computer from her days as secretary of state. Most of us can relate; we get so much email we have to read some of it at home, simply to keep up.
    We rely so much on email for work that any down time is not only an annoyance, it’s an expense. Email makes our work lives more productive than ever — except for the time spent checking it all.
    Sadly, there is a dark side to email. As with everything else, it’s corruptible. Junk mail and related computer viruses have become our bane. People who want to take advantage of us have found unlimited opportunities. Terrorists plan out their attacks. Scammers seek to exploit.
    And who among us hasn’t hit “send” on an email only to regret our words later?
    Ray Tomlinson certainly couldn’t have imagined any of this when he was simply looking for a way to communicate among the ARPANET pack back in the ‘70s.
    He deserves to be placed in the same category as technology pantheons like Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web; Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the inventors of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook; Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the founders of Microsoft; and Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter.
    If Alexander Graham Bell gave us the means to stay in touch one call at a time, Ray Tomlinson took that notion and ran with it, creating a communication medium that has no end.
    Dennis Grubaugh is editor and partner of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at or (618) 977-6865.

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