Where Are You @?

I was in college in the early ’90s when I got my first email address. After my roommate came home one day and told me about this thing called electronic mail, I ventured over to the computer lab in the science center to investigate. Not long after I had my email address, and I would go to the computer lab periodically to log in. I sent messages to friends who also had addresses, and would read on occasionally post on a couple of newsgroups.

Much has changed about email in the past two decades, but one thing hasn’t: the “@” sign (“at” sign) that serves as the link between a user name and domain to comprise a complete email address.

Raymond Tomlinson, the computer scientist who added the @ sign to email addresses, died earlier this week at the age of 74.

Tomlinson was working on the precursor to the Internet in the early 1970s when he developed a messaging system that would allow people who were working on different computers to send messages to one another. Needing a way to indicate both the recipient of the message, and the computer “address” to which the message would be sent, he incorporated the @ symbol, which was an accounting symbol that appeared in ledgers to indicate price (i.e., x goods @ $y each) and which began to appear in typewriters in the late 1800s. (You can read a history of the @ sign on Wikipedia.)

Now, the symbol is universally recognized and used throughout the world. Beyond email, the @ sign has expanded to use in Twitter usernames and and other social media uses.

In his obituary, Tomlinson was quoted as saying in 2012, “I’m often asked, did I know what I was doing? And the answer is, yes, I knew exactly what I was doing. I just had no notion whatsoever of what the ultimate impact would be. What I was doing was providing a way for people to communicate with other people.”

With the use of the @ symbol, Tomlinson had indeed made a way for people to communicate with one another, and joined the long list of people whose simple innovations can revolutionize a community or a society. Very often these people are known only in small circles, or go unsung, or become known, like Tomlinson perhaps, only in death.

The Torah reading this week is Pekudei, which is the end of the book of Exodus. I am always struck by the imagery of this Torah portion. Throughout the book of Exodus we have learned about the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sacred structure that the Israelites are to create and carry with them on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It is to serve as a community center and sacred space for worship.

There is much ink in the Torah on the Tabernacle. First God lays out the plans to Moses in detail. Then Moses lays out the plans to the Israelites in detail. Then the Torah describes how all the pieces and vessels are built through generous communal donations. And now, at the end of the book of Exodus, the Tabernacle is assembled. And it is assembled not by the entire community, nor by a team of artisans, nor by the priestly class who will run the sacrificial system, but by Moses himself, alone.

It’s a strikingly personal and intimate moment, Moses putting the pieces together of this important project. While its creation was a communal effort, the actual assembly is done by one person. It reminds us that while we live our lives in community, one person can sometimes have an outsized impact.

And often we may not even know what that impact will be. We all, like Ray Tomlinson, go about our daily lives and work, trying to do our best and perhaps make a difference. And sometimes, like Ray Tomlinson, we create something or have an idea or introduce an innovation that has a tremendous impact, either by changing a life, or a community or the world. As he said, he was just trying to figure out a way for people to communicate. The rest is history.

What might be your @?

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