Tuesday, March 08, 2016


I woke yesterday morning to the news that Ray Tomlinson had died.

I didn’t really know Ray. But I had met him a few times, and remember him – as I do so many of the techies in my past - as a pleasant, good-humored guy.

In 1999, I began working for GTE Internetworking, “powered by BBN”. GTEI was an Internet Services Provider/telecom firm. BBN was Bolt, Beranek and Newman which – sorry, Al Gore – kinda/sorta invented the Internet. (Among other things, BBN worked on the missing 17 minutes of the Nixon Watergate tape, and analyzed the sound track of the JFK assassination.) BBN’s Internet services business, BBN Planet, became part of GTEI. Which is where Ray Tomlinson came in.

Back in the early 1970’s, when the Internet was, indeed, being invented, Ray was the one who’d come up with the idea of using the @ sign to designate the location of the sender and the receiver on either end of an email. There had been internal email systems prior to this, but if everyone’s got the same address, who needs an address?

Anyway, as part of our marketing at GTEI (later, Genuity), we made a lot of our roots in BBN. It bolstered are bona fides, gave us some credibility, and provided us with plenty of bragging rights. We used all this, of course, to charge a premium for our services.

Ray did a lot more than come up with using the @ sign for email,and over the course of my time at GTEI/Genuity, I had reason to meet with him on a couple of occasions. He was quite helpful in answering my questions on networking technology, or whatever it was I was asking him about. (This was true of all the BBN guys who crossed over to GTEI/Genuity.)

But his main association at GTEI/Genuity was as the father of the @.

As I recall, Ray didn’t think it was that big a deal, treated all the fuss with good grace, and, I suspect, at times find it a complete, ridiculous pain in the arse.

Oh, the @ wasn’t the only thing we bragged about. We also had on our staff the guy awarded the Sexiest Geek Alive crown for the year 2000.

Amazingly, this laurel often found its way into our communications as well.

I’m not sure what it was supposed to convey exactly, but we did so like to use it.

It was actually a lot easier to talk about Ray and the @, or Tony, the Sexiest Geek Alive winner, than it was to explain some of the actual services we were trying to market.

Most were, in fact, pretty straightforward: we managed security, we hosted web sites.

But somewhere along the line, we forgot all about our deep technical roots and accomplishments,however oddly and ridiculously we sometimes conveyed them  - Hey, look at us! We invented the Internet! And came up with the @ for email. And we have the sexiest geek alive as a systems architect! – and opted to go for something that was just plain odd and ridiculous.

This was the Genuity Black Rocket platform, a cautionary marketing and product management tale for another day.

Today’s the day to remember Ray Tomlinson and his contribution to the wonderful world of technology.One that so many of us use multiple times each day.

As I said, I didn’t really know Ray, but I did run into him a few years ago at the memorial service for the husband of an old and dear friend of mine.

Wally was one of the original BBN geniuses – they were called wizards – and worked for BBN from the early 1960’s up until the time of his death in 2013. Ray had worked with Wally for many years.

At Wally’s service, Ray and I spoke for a few minutes, and the @ came up in our conversation. The topic was introduced by me, as a reminder to him how I knew him, and that we had once worked together. He was the same affable guy I recalled, reminding me of one of the things I most miss about not working full time: how little time I spend these days with the techies.

Most of my clients are technology vendors, but I don’t actually have much to do with the engineering side of the house. Oh, sometimes when I’m working on a more technical document, I’ll end up talking with one of the techies. I do have one client – a small firm made up of electrical engineers – where I get to be with the geeks. But mostly I’m with the product marketing and marcom folks.

Anyway, reading about Ray’s death made me nostalgic for the days when each one of those days meant some time spent with the technology folks. So many of them were like Ray: smart, affable, inventive, and always willing to make time for someone who genuinely wanted to learn something from them.

So long, Ray Tomlinson. Here’s looking @ you…

1 comment:

Frederick Wright said...

There is some ineffable characteristic shared by the 'old guard', the pioneers of the tech world we live in today. I always felt that I could speak my mind to people like Ray, or to Dennis Ritchie or to Brian Kernighan. They didn't consider themselves rock stars, and their insatiable curiosity was spread so easily. RIP Ray!