The year was 1971. The writer was Ray Tomlinson.

The Alexander Graham Bell of e-mail is Ray Tomlinson, and he can't even remember the first message he sent. "It may have been 'QWERTYUIOP,' or just 'TESTING,'" Tomlinson says.

Admittedly, typing 10 consecutive letters on a computer keyboard isn't nearly as dramatic as Bell's "Watson, come here, I need you!" in 1876, but the form of communication that evolved is every bit as far-reaching and revolutionary as the telephone.

"The development of e-mail stands out as a crucial moment in the history of computer-mediated communication,'' according to Ian Hardy, a Berkeley cyberhistorian, "Before e-mail, people didn't view computers as tools for talking to one another."

In 1958, sending instant messages was probably the furthest thing from the minds of the engineers who set up ARPANET, the antecedent of today's Internet. Forget chatting. ARPANET was created by the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency in direct response to the Soviet Union's launch the previous year of Sputnik I. The idea was to link computers at remote sites so massive files could be transferred from one researcher to another.

All that was before Tomlinson (then and now a programmer for GTE Internetworking) and his first e-mail message. In late 1971, he set up two Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-10 computers side by side. One had what was then a large memory of about 288 kilobytes. For hours, Tomlinson fiddled with the computers and the program, debugging step by step as, time and again, his message wasn't sent, wasn't received or came up garbled.

"Finally, there was the moment when I typed my test message one more time and sent it," Tomlinson says--via e-mail, naturally. "A few seconds later, the other terminal rang its bell and announced, 'YOU HAVE A MESSAGE.' I read the message and saw that it had worked."

And what of that critical symbol of modern e-mail addresses? In 1971, there were only 23 machines on the fledgling Internet, but Tomlinson nonetheless needed a "separator" to distinguish the name of the user from the name of the computer. "The choice of the 'at' sign [@] seemed pretty straightforward," he recalls. "It was not used to spell anyone's name, and being a single character made it easier to scan for the separator in the program. I suppose I could have chosen the 'of' sign or the 'on' sign, but there are no such animals. In fact, now that I think of it, the 'at' sign is the only prepositional character on the keyboard."

And so a rarely used keyboard character became the symbol of cyberculture. Tomlinson became Citizen No. 1 in cyberspace, and today, people give him awards.

"The whole 'at' sign furor is, on the one hand, amusing, but on the other, it is very gratifying as well," Tomlinson says. "It certainly is unexpected. At the time, e-mail just seemed like a good hack. It was just a neat use of the network--a solution looking for problems." Tomlinson shared his new e-mail program with anyone and everyone, for free. That was the way computer geeks did things back then. (Imagine the consequences if he had copyrighted the e-mail program, and where in relation to Bill Gates' and Michael Dell's his net worth might stand.)

At first, e-mail was a novelty not unlike ham radio; people sent messages back and forth just because they could. In a short time, however, cyberpioneers became dependent on e-mail as a quick, easy and cheap means of communication.

No history of the Internet is complete without mentioning such other key figures as Vinton Cerf and Robert E. Kahn. Cerf and Kahn developed TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol), the computer programming that makes it possible to transfer information over the Internet. But like Bell's breakthrough with what would become known as the telephone, the moment and place of birth of e-mail can be accurately fixed--as can its discoverer's identity.

"After Ray Tomlinson's first e-mail message, communication suddenly became one of the largest (and most unexpected) uses of the Net," Hardy the cyberhistorian says. "What's fascinating about e-mail is the fact that the way people communicate with it is so different from traditional information media." He points out that communicating via e-mail is much more informal and direct than talking over a telephone or sending a letter. "The entire culture of e-mail is very different and new," Hardy continues, "and has a great deal to say about our contemporary social needs in a world consumed by technology.

With billions of messages transmitted each day, e-mail has become the Internet's so-called "killer application." Not only is electronic mail the most common use of the Internet (about 84 to 85 percent, by most estimates), but many of us already take it for granted in the same way we unconsciously depend on automobiles, televisions, telephones and the other "killer apps" that have changed the course of the 20th century.