Last week the world lost a real pioneer; a man who transformed communication and revolutionized the way we do business. Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email and the creator of the “@” symbol, was described as “humble, kind and generous with his time and talents”. Mr. Tomlinson spent almost 50 years with the same employer, the Raytheon Company (formerly known as BBN Technologies). He worked there until his death. Joyce Kuzman, a Raytheon spokesperson, said of Tomlinson “people just loved to work with him…He was just a really nice, down-to-earth good guy.” Paradoxically, unlike the millions who frequently use his invention today, Mr. Tomlinson was not addicted to email.
Tomlinson’s passing caused me to reflect on the meaning of remaining true to oneself, despite extraordinary accomplishments and accolades bestowed by peers. By all accounts, Tomlinson lived modestly, was dedicated to his work, and “didn’t thrive on the glory” said his colleague, Harry Forsdick, who commuted with Tomlinson for 15 years.
How would success change you? Would it alter your habits and above all, would it alter your value system? Tomlinson was the antithesis of the modern day email user. He did not subscribe to the notion of “inbox zero guilt” and he was perfectly comfortable leaving his email unchecked for days. Unlike many in the workplace who succumb to the need to instantly reply, or to be at their employer’s beck and call, email’s instant accessibility did not alter the behavior of the man who created one of the most transformative communication technologies of our time.
Tomlinson did not become a billionaire, or a high profile internet sensation. When asked about his network email invention, he said it seemed like a “neat idea”. As for his choice of the“@” symbol to identify a user and host name he said “it just made sense”. Such responses were typical for Tomlinson. Even his daughter Suzanne was unaware of her father’s electronic mail feats, hearing about them from a friend.
There is no question email has transformed our lives in numerous and positive ways. We can connect and share information globally and instantaneously, at minimal cost. While it is fascinating to learn about the early development of email, it is equally compelling to discover that its history, for the most part, remained undisclosed until the late 1990’s when email became mainstream.
Throughout the years and until his death, Tomlinson quietly went about his work and life. Unfazed by his incredible invention and indelible footprint on technology, he continued to be passionate about his work, mentored others and remained authentic. What do want your legacy to be?