Skip to main content

Email. Should we thank Ray Tomlinson?

On Monday, I am tasked with giving whole school assembly.  The theme for the term is current affairs.  There's lots to talk about but I have gone for something a little different. What follows is my talk.

Clearly, as Head of MFL I should stand here today and talk about Europe - should we be in or out? However, the papers are full of articles and editorials and I am going to leave it to you to read these and make these important decisions yourself. 

Instead I want to talk about this man. 
Image courtesy of

On 6th March, Ray Tomlinson died.

You may not have any idea who this man is.  But his work has, even if you did not know it, impacted on the way you now communicate.  Indeed in my lifetime, which is not quite half a century, communication has changed beyond recognition.  As a youngster I recall people using fax, telephones looked like this and I used to send my Australian relatives airmail letters. On my year abroad in Russia I sent telegrams as it was so cheap, and when I was in France I used to call home from a phone box that looked like this.  As I said, things have changed significantly since then.

Tomlinson invented and sent the first email.  It is Tomlinson who put the @ symbol on the map. The content of that first email apparently is not of much interest at all, Tomlinson himself said its content was ‘completely forgettable’  but that is not really the point.  What matters is the change that this first email then brought about on our systems of communication.  

To illustrate my point. When I was about 14, I was a big fan of Hollywood movies and in particular films from the golden age of Hollywood.  I was particularly interested in this actor.  

Image courtesy of 

I was a huge fan and I decided to write to him.  I can't recall exactly what I wrote but I especially wanted to know if It's a Wonderful Life was his favourite film - it certainly was mine.  Once I had finished my letter I sealed it in an envelope.  But, then I hit a problem.  Where was I going to send my letter? There was no internet for instant information.  I couldn't check his web page and Twitter did not exist then.  I decided that I should send the letter to a publisher of a biography of Jimmy Stewart. 

About seven months later, joy of joys, I received a reply.  From the publishers of the biography.  They told me that my letter had been sent to the author with a covering letter.  Ok.  It wasn't what I was expecting but I was getting somewhere.   About six months after that I received another letter.  This time from the author himself telling me he had posted my letter to James Stewart’s agent in Hollywood. 

Then one day about two years after I had sent my initial letter,  my response from James Stewart arrived. It is still one of my most treasured possessions.  Perhaps it means so much to me because I had to wait so long for it, because I had to put so much effort into getting it to James Stewart.  

There can be a joy in receiving a letter that you just don't get in an email.  Or from a message in facebook or on snapchat or twitter. 

These days when I want to contact someone famous I generally tweet them.  This has brought me success on a number of occasions I am always pleased when I do get a response but it's not the same as the joy I had when I received my letter from James Stewart.  I don't remember what the tweets say, I don't print out the 140 characters. The tweet simply gets lost in amongst the thousands of others that get sent.  It’s not the same as holding and keeping a letter.  A letter where so much more thought and consideration has gone into the words and the message. 

I'm not the sort of person who hankers after the past.  I consider myself to be forward thinking and I embrace technology.  Email is great and I think we have a lot to thank Tomlinson for.  It has enabled us to communicate so much more quickly and efficiently.  But email has its drawbacks too.

The speed with which we can respond to an email is not always a good thing.  We must take our time and consider whether we need to reply, whether it might actually be better to talk face to face to whoever has emailed us.  We need also to consider whether we are able to communicate our message successfully.  A great deal can be lost in translation.

And the expectation that because you have sent an email a reply should be forthcoming straight away is just unhealthy.  

From the initial email sent by Tomlinson communication has come far:

For example in a day:  

300 000 new people join twitter 
55 million tweets are written
35 million people update their facebook status
The average user spends nearly an hour on facebook 
2 billion videos are watched on you tube
34 560 hours of video is uploaded to you tube

And that does not take into account the millions of posts, chats and comments, that appear every day on blogs, forums and sites around the world. 

Now that we have tablets, phones and laptops email and social media is with us everywhere we go - there is no escape. Since Tomlinson invented email we now have systems of communication that allow us to collaborate,  express ourselves in blogs, comment on other peoples videos, face time, skype, be in touch with old friends, set up group chats and a whole host of other tools.  These days everyone can talk to everyone about anything all the time and the conversations can be accessed again and again. 

This means that we must be careful.  Email and social media is not the problem.  It’s the people that misuse them that are the problem.  So the next time you are about to click send, post a message, tweet, post a picture on instagram, contribute to an online forum take a moment to consider - is this something you would want to receive?  Is this the image you want to portray?  Is this something that you want others to see again and again?  

Yes.  Ray Tomlinson - we have a lot to thank you for - but you have given us plenty to think about too.

Popular posts from this blog

First steps with OneNote

In all my years of teaching I have always written to-do lists to help me keep organised and have had a lovely black academic diary that I have refilled each year.  However, over time I have relied increasingly on my outlook calendar for important dates and deadlines.  Last April, knowing that as a school we would be implementing Office 365 tools in the classroom in the near future, I saw that One Note would be a good place for me to start learning.  I could cut my teeth on my own Notebook and be ready to introduce Class Notebook in September.

I started using my notebook as a personal organiser in late May and by the end of June I had made my decision to give up my old ways of organising my busy working life.  As time has gone on I have become more adept at using the tool and have organised my Notebook accordingly.

Firstly some OneNote Notebook clarification:

A Notebook has sectionsWithin sections there are pagesPages can have sub-pages. In plain language, imagine that a Notebook is lik…

3 Core Principles to consider when using Tablets & Office 365

Technology must not cloud the pedagogical intent.Having made a start at explaining how I use Microsoft in Education in these three posts here (Learning to teach with Microsoft in Education, First steps with OneNote and Tags & Templates) I want to take a step back and outline my thinking behind using this technology in the first place. I am teaching at a school where a decision has been made to commit to using Microsoft Surface Pro and the suite of Office 365 tools and although this has meant learning about a new set of tools essentially I am in favour of the decision and all its implications.  In fact, use of technology to enhance what pupils are able to learn and achieve in the classroom very much fits in with my intrinsic teaching methods and my ideology.  I have posted on many occasions about technology use.  This post from last June clearly outlines how technology can have an impact on the different stages of teaching.  
As I embark on my second term with my Surface Pro and O…

Does education really need technology?

There may be many with a view on what makes for a good lesson.  Most would not argue with the ideas clearly expounded upon by Hattie and Yates (1) that a good lesson starts with an initial review of knowledge, moves on to a formal presentation, guided practice, initial feedback, independent practice and a follow-up review.  In terms of my own practice this is a model that I follow.  Not via any particular tools because I know that my target audience need variety and must not settle into any type of formulaic process.  Thus, I follow the steps but use different methods. Far be it for me to claim that this effective lesson cannot be achieved without technology.  Having started my teaching career over 20 years ago I know that it is possible to be an effective practitioner and deliver a lesson where progress is made using old-fashioned methods that may well have included some worksheets created on the trusty (rusty?) Banda machine.  Nor am I here to advocate that this process is more effe…