Who Invented Email, Really?

By Steven Greenberg
Published on: March 5, 2020

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Do you know who Ray Tomlinson is?  You probably don’t.  He is widely credited with being the inventor of email.  Wikipedia says so, so it must be true, right?  Well, I beg to disagree.

In 1971, Tomlinson did implement the first email program on the Apranet system, the precursor to the Internet. And Ray did create our current email format.  He’s the guy who decided to use the @ sign to separate user names from the name of the computer server.

But long before that, during the 1960’s, there were multiple computer networks capable of messaging within their own network. What made Tomlinson’s “invention” unique, was that you could send text messages to computers on different terminals, regardless of variable transmission speeds and/or a pre-set code, so the whole thing worked automatically.

However, in 1969, Bell Labs, who at its peak developed a wide range of technologies including radio astronomy, the transistor, the charge-coupled device (CCD), the laser and the operating system Unix, had in place a wide-scale text messaging system known as #1 ESS ADF (which stands for: Number one Electronics Switching System Arranged with Data Features).  Great name, huh? I really think that system should qualify as the first true email system.

This #1 ESS ADF email system (based on Bell’s state-of-the-art ESS phone line switching technology) allowed people to compose a text message and to address it to any number of recipients. When the #1 ESS ADF system went live in 1969, it was remarkably robust. They had over 1,200 terminals located in over 700 locations across the U.S. The parent companies of Bell Labs, Western Electric and AT&T, used the email system for business purposes; sending admin messages, traffic orders, service requests, payroll info, and budgeting reports between offices and management. No other entity, including universities or the government, had anything like it.

Additionally, the system could support a variety of terminals using multiple code sets and interchange between them transparently. You could also preset group addresses and specify over 350 destination addresses for a single message. Messages could be time stamped and sequenced and be given priorities like Urgent, Rush or Deferred.

So, I contend that Bell Labs was the original inventor of email as we know it today. I think the real reason that Ray Tomlinson is given credit for the invention of email might boil down to politics. When Bell Systems was ruled a natural monopoly, the FCC decided that their “messaging” system was not a telecommunications service, so it couldn’t be offered to the general public. Even though the system was used internally into the 1980’s, it never got the credit it deserved.

Bell Labs— you got mail – and you got screwed.

Steven Greenberg

Steven Greenberg

Steven is the author of Gadget Nation and can be seen every month on NBC’s Today Show. He appears routinely on The Dr. Oz Show and on the nationally syndicated news/talk TV show Eye Opener. Follow Steven on Twitter @SteveTV or Facebook at www.Facebook.com/SteveTV

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