Silicon Valley gets most of the credit for creating the online world, but the engineering-consulting firm / MIT spinoff Bolt Beranek and Newman in Boston, a.k.a. BBN, was one of the  main driving forces in the development of ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. Their lack of sexy CEOs mean they get overlooked most of the time but occasionally they return to public attention.

One of those moments is happening now, with the passing of Ray Tomlinson, an email pioneer best known as the guy who pushed the @ sign. Here’s a Guardian piece on him.

Tomlinson showed a colleague his invention and then, famously, said: “Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.” At the time, few people had personal computers. The popularity of personal email wouldn’t take off until years later but has become an integral part of modern life.

“It wasn’t an assignment at all, he was just fooling around; he was looking for something to do with ARPANET,” Raytheon spokeswoman Joyce Kuzman said of his creation of network email. (Raytheon bought BBN in 2009)

Tomlinson chose the @ symbol to connect the username with the destination address. Kuzman said Tomlinson was looking at the keyboard and needed something that would not otherwise be part of the address and that seemed to be a logical solution.

“It is a symbol that probably would have gone away if not for email,” she said.

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