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The Man Who Didn’t Invent E-mail

By on February 21, 2012No Comment

You invented e-mail? Really?

Recently, I was shocked to learn that a 14-year old named V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai invented e-mail in 1978.  This story came to me via the Washington Post, which reported on February 17 that the “inventor” was being honored by the Smithsonian.  A Time magazine online story which I hadn’t seen until the past week apparently broke the “news” last November.

Why am I using quotation marks (which I typically abhor) around the word “inventor” and “news”?  The answer is simple.  When I first read the story in the Wash Post, I started laughing and quickly double-checked the calendar to see if it were April 1st.  Since it wasn’t, I felt compelled to set the record straight and I am sure that I am not the only one doing so.

If you go back to the Wash Post story today, you’ll see a “clarification” (whoops, there are those pesky quotation marks again) explaining that “a number of readers have accurately pointed out that electronic messaging predates V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai’s work in 1978. However, Ayyadurai holds the copyright to the computer program called “email,” establishing him as the creator of the “computer program for [an] electronic mail system” with that name, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.”

Let’s look back for a moment.   E-mail was a feature of 1960s mainframe computer systems that had the capability allowing a user to send a message to another user of the same system.  This was an advancement of real-time chat programs that were in use up until that point (yes, chat was around in the 1960s).  The MIT CTSS (ca. 1965) is likely to have been the first system that incorporated this kind of e-mail.

In terms of e-mail as we know it now, meaning the ability to send a message to someone using a different computer or computer system, credit goes to Ray Tomlinson (who also invented the use of the “@” symbol in the addressing scheme).  I cover this in my book, Overload!, and this was the killer app of its time.

Now, back to our hero, Mr. Ayyadurai.  While the clarification issued by the Wash Post serves to indicate that there was some degree of public outcry about the article, its wording is ambiguous at best.  Holding the copyright to a computer program named “EMAIL” is not the same thing as having invented e-mail.  Were I to write a messaging program today (assuming I took a crash course in programming first), I too would be able to copyright my very own “EMAIL” program.  So could you, for that matter.

What makes me uneasy about this is that all of the press coverage comes in advance of the publication of Ayyadurai’s book, The EMAIL Revolution.  While the cover of the book seems to be ready, the description merely says “”Lorem ipsum…”   His Web site is a masterpiece of self promotion that also includes a video he prepared: “Turmeric: Wonder Herb of India.”

I stand by what is not really my claim but that of many eminent computer historians, namely that Ray Tomlinson is the inventor and father of modern e-mail.  At least Ray didn’t capitalize it and he certainly isn’t trying to capitalize on it either.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

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