In 1972, the “@” symbol made its debut in the world’s first networked emails.
Credit for the adoption of the symbol to separate user names from computer hosts goes to Ray Tomlinson, a long-time computer scientist at the company Bolt, Beranek and Newman, which had won the contract in the late 1960s to create ARPANET, the predecessor of Internet
ARPANET (“Advanced Research Projects Agency Network”) was begun in 1969 as a U.S. Department of Defense project, with the aim of creating a secure computer-to-computer communication system for the military that would survive in the event of war.
By 1971, ARPANET remained little more than an experimental network of connected computers. Those who knew about it still searched for possible expanded uses of the system. Recalls Tomlinson, “ARPANET was a solution looking for a problem.” Tomlinson began exploring ways the network could be better utilized for communication purposes. “There was no directive to ‘go forth and invent email,’” Tomlinson said; it just seemed an intriguing path of inquiry.
In 1971, Tomlinson began experimenting with sending messages to himself via ARPANET, creating a program that would allow files to be shared between two computers – using two computers, however, that were literally side by side in the laboratory. A colleague suggested that he “not tell the boss what I had done because email wasn’t in our statement of work,” Tomlinson recalled. “That was really said in jest because we were, after all, investigating ways in which to use the ARPANET.”
After perfecting his program, Tomlinson released it to the wider ARPANET user group in 1972, along with a message – delivered via network — explaining how to send messages. Thus, said Tomlinson, “The first use of network email announced its own existence.” Tomlinson gave instructions about using the “@” sign to separate the user’s name from the host computer name. Tomlinson picked the sign not only because of its self-evident designation of a user at a particular computer, but because the sign did not appear in anyone’s name, so there would be no ambiguity about where the separation between login name and host name occurred.
That first email software was a revolutionary use of ARPNET, spurring the creation of a host of complementary technologies. Several other valuable services for remote access appeared in 1972, such as Telnet and the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) that became an economical way of duplicating the power of other distant computers.
As well in 1972, an Inter-Networking Group, made up of an amalgam of organizations and technologists, was formed to further the possibilities of connected computing. Through the group’s work came the first appearance of the word “Internet” in 1972. The term “email,” however, would not appear until 1978.
By 1973, e-mail constituted 75% of ARPANET traffic. Within three years, computer-to-computer messaging would begin to enter the public realm; Queen Elizabeth sent her first email in 1976.
Twenty years later, In 1996, for the first time in the US more electronic mail was being sent than postal mail. By 2003, “spam” – a term coined by Internet users in the 1990s to refer to unsolicited emails — accounted for over one-half of all emails sent. Today, more than 247 billion emails are sent each day – with nearly 90% of it regarded as spam.