Did V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai Invent Email? (UPDATED)
Did V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai Invent Email? A Computer Historian Responds
Now includes both the original article comissioned by the Washington Post and a lengthy extension covering Ayyadurai's susequent claims added in August 2012.
This article was commissioned by the Washington Post on Feb 28, 2012 after it published an article lauding Ayyadurai as the inventor of email. Emi Kolawole, the same journalist who had written the erroneous story, accepted it with very minor changes on March 14 for publication online in her “Ideas@Innovations” department. However, news soon came of a delay caused by unspecified “developments” within the Post, and on March 19 I was informed that the article would not be published. Therefore I am publishing a slightly improved version of the article here. The saga is documented further in a letter I wrote the Post’s Ombudsman.
Electronic mail, or email, was introduced at MIT in 1965 and was widely discussed in the press during the 1970s. Tens of thousands of users were swapping messages daily by 1980. That’s the year in which V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, then a teenager, “designed and deployed” his own electronic mail system, called EMAIL, “for use at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.” The problem? Ayyadurai claims to have thereby “buil[t] the first Electronic MAIL system.” He recently convinced a number of journalists and bloggers to repeat this claim as fact.
As part of its process of correcting the record the Washington Post has asked me to provide an brief history of the early development of email and an evaluation of Ayyadurai’s claims. Press coverage of the controversy shows ongoing confusion regarding several key issues, so I am presenting this history in the form of questions and answers.
What Is Electronic Mail?
Discussion of electronic mail goes back to the 1950s, when the United States Post Office began to plan its response to what was then called the “electronic age.” On November 2, 1959 the Appleton Post- Crescent’s Fletcher Knebel wrote that then-Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield was exploring the future possibility of “split second electronic mail.” Knebel went on to write that, in this new system, “a letter will cost 15 cents. A nickel to send – and a dime to bribe the electronic brain to forget what it read.”
In this early period there was no clear dividing line between what we would now think of as email and other forms of electronic message transmission such as fax, or even the computerized routing of telex messages in a central switching center. For example, in 1971 advertisements appeared (New York Times, Oct 28, p. 69) for “Mailgram, the new electronic mail service provided by Western Union and the United States Postal Service.” This was essentially a telegram delivered in the mail for $1.60.
Clearly we need a more specific definition that captures the essence of computer based electronic mail as it actually emerged. Here is one I developed in discussion with email pioneers Ray Tomlinson, Tom Van Vleck and Dave Crocker:
Electronic mail is a service provided by computer programs to send unstructured textual messages of about the same length as paper letters from the account of one user to recipients' personal electronic mailboxes, where they are stored for later retrieval.
Electronic mail systems accomplish this in many different ways, and most add additional capabilities such as sorting messages, composing replies, and sending very long messages. But this definition separates electronic mail as we understand it today from earlier kinds of electronic transmissions and from alternative media such as chat and text messaging.
What Was The First Electronic Mail System?
The earliest well documented electronic mail system was part of the Compatible Time Sharing System (CTSS) at MIT. CTSS was one of the first timesharing operating systems. It allowed dozens of people to use a big IBM computer simultaneously, each working on their own files and running their own programs. Its MAIL command had been proposed in a staff planning memo at the end of 1964 and was implemented in mid-1965 when Tom Van Vleck and Noel Morris, junior members of the institute’s research staff, took the initiative to write the necessary code. Hundreds of people had CTSS accounts and some accessed the system remotely over phone lines from other institutions. As Van Vleck explained recently in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, these people used MAIL for a variety of personal and professional purposes.
Similar communications programs were built for other timesharing systems. One of the most ambitious and influential was Murray Turoff’s EMISARI. Created in 1971 for the United States Office of Emergency Preparedness, EMISARI combined private electronic messages with a chat system, public postings, voting, and a user directory. All were stored as entries in a consolidated database.
How About Mail Between Users of Two Different Computers?
During the 1960s it was common to connect a large number of terminals to a single, central computer. Connecting two computers together was relatively unusual.
This began to change in the 1970s with the development of the ARPANET, the ancestor of today’s Internet. The project was funded by the Department of Defense to interconnect the elite computer science researchers it supported at universities scattered across the country. ARPANET provided a test bed on which to experiment with a variety of network applications. Programming them was relatively easy, as the network itself handled the mechanics of sending and receiving data packets.
In 1971 Ray Tomlinson adapted the SNDMSG program, originally developed for the University of California at Berkeley timesharing system, to give it the ability to transmit a message across the network into the mailbox of a user on a different computer. Tomlinson worked for Bolt, Beranek and Newman, a technology company responsible for building the ARPANET which by this point included about two dozen computers, each with many users. For the first time it was necessary to specify the recipient’s computer as well as his or her account name. Tomlinson decided that the underused @ (for “at”) key would work to separate the two. To the surprise of the ARPANET’s creators, this “network mail” turned out to be its most popular application.
Because different ARPANET sites used different kinds of computer a network-wide service such as mail could not be established simply by writing one program and asking each lab to use it. Instead, ARPANET users negotiated common standards for electronic mail transmission that would allow the development of compatible email programs for different computers. These standards were published as a series of numbered Requests for Comments (RFCs). Thanks to this process we have a much clearer picture of the development of ARPANET mail than we do for other early systems.
Capabilities evolved rapidly. Sending a message across the network was originally treated as a special instance of transmitting a file, and so a MAIL command was included in RFC 385 on file transfer in 1972. Because it was not always clear when or where a message had come from, RFC 561 in 1973 aimed to formalize electronic mail headers (still with us today) including fields such as “from,” “date,” and “subject.” In 1975 RFC 680 described fields to help with the transmission of messages to multiple users, including “to,” “cc,” and “bcc.” In 1977 these features and others went from best practices to a binding standard in RFC 733.
Who Used Electronic Mail Before 1980?
Public interest in electronic mail was rising rapidly during the late 1970s as part of a broader wave of enthusiasm for what was often called the “computer revolution” or “information society.” The social impact of electronic mail was explored in popular books such as Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave (1980) and Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff’s The Network Nation (1978).
Queen Elizabeth II of England became the first head of state to send electronic mail while ceremonially opening a building in the British Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in 1976. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign team used electronic mail for internal communication. Gary Thurek, an overly enthusiastic marketer for the Digital Equipment Corporation addressed a message remembered as the first spam to around 600 APRPANET users.
What Was New About Ayyadurai’s System?
In a word, nothing. It was an impressive accomplishment for a teenager, but even Ayyadurai’s own description of its capabilities includes no features that had not already been used in other electronic mail systems. (Update Aug 2012 -- Ayyadurai has now changed the description of features, see below for new analysis).
To “invent” something you have to devise some kind of new technology or capability that had not existed before. A computer program is not invented; it is “written” or “developed.” So, for example, it would make sense to say that Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston invented the spreadsheet when they wrote Visicalc. It wouldn’t make sense to say that Google invented the web browser when it developed Google Chrome, as many previous browsers existed, or even that it “invented the world’s first Google Chrome” as that is a specific system rather than a technology.
The Westinghouse Science Talent Search entry reproduced on his website describes a simple electronic mail system running on a HP/1000 timesharing minicomputer. It served “several hundred users” via terminals hooked into this central computer through modems and other links. CTSS MAIL had used similar techniques to serve a larger user population. Ayyadurai’s diagram of the system seems to show two computers exchanging messages (the lower left portion is illegible on the original), but this was also far from novel. I have seen no evidence that the system included what patent lawyers called an “inventive step” of any kind, still less that Ayyadurai invented, as he has frequently claimed, “the world’s first EMAIL system.”
The Smithsonian itself has explained that in accepting Ayyadurai’s offer of the materials describing his program the museum did not endorse his claim to have invented email. The system will still be of interest to historians as a representative example of a low-budget, small scale electronic mail system constructed from off-the-shelf components, including the HP/1000’s communications, word processing, and database programs.
Ayyadurai has claimed that his system was the first to be inspired directly by interoffice paper mail, or to be usable by office workers. As early as September 13, 1976, Business Week had run a story headed “When the Interoffice Mail Goes Electronic,” profiling this new field. By 1980 electronic mail systems aimed at the office environment were readily available from companies such as DEC, Wang, and IBM. They had even been developed for early personal computers such as the Apple II.
Xerox created the most advanced office information technology of the era. Researchers at its PARC lab created many of the key technologies of later personal computers, including Ethernet, laser printing, and the graphical user interface approach used by Windows and other modern operating systems. By 1978 the PARC electronic mail software, Laurel, ran on the user’s local computer, was operated with a mouse, and pulled messages from the PARC server to a personal hard drive for storage and filing. Laurel, as you can see in this 1979 Xerox commercial, split the screen into several window panes to simultaneously display the text of one message and a list of other messages.
Laurel set the template for modern email client programs such as Outlook Express. An even more advanced electronic mail capability was commercialized with the Xerox Star, launched in 1981.
How Did Ayyadurai Make His Claim?
The most striking thing about Ayyadurai’s claim to have invented electronic mail is how late it comes. Somehow it took him thirty years to alert the world to greatest achievement. In the late 1990s, when he led a company focused on automating email replies, his website called him merely a “pioneer in E-Mail technology.”
The delay was not a result of false modesty. Ayyadurai describes himself as the “world's foremost authority on integrating systems of medicine” and creator of the discipline of Systems Visualization. He has asserted his authority as an MIT faculty member in an attempt to browbeat critcs, even though his actual job of lecturer does not give him faculty status. Neither can the delay be attributed to shyness. He is, after all, the author of The Internet Publicity Guide: How To Maximize Your Marketing And Promotion In Cyberspace. At least some of the many labs, institutes, and initiatives he boasts of leading appear to have little reality beyond his own web pages. For example, his MIT Email Lab, was launched February 2012 on one of his private websites. Unusually for a laboratory its webpage mentions no MIT faculty, research activities, facilities, grants, or working papers. It does prominently feature his own descriptions of email history, his definitions of email, and his press clippings. (Around March 12 the site suddenly erased all claims to MIT affiliation and removed the MIT logo).
Making up for these decades of uncharacteristic reticence, Ayyadurai registered the domains historyofemail.net on July 2, 2010 and inventorofemail.com on July 5, 2010. That was around the time the description “Inventor of the World’s First E-Mail System” appeared on his existing website. Somewhere along the road, according to the Post, he hired a public relations firm. On 30 August 2011 he registered at Wikipedia and set about “correcting” the entry on email. His angry pleas failed to prevent established editors from repeatedly blocking his edits, and he was soon barred from making further changes.
His press clippings show that Ayyadurai had more success in convincing bloggers with his new websites and a slick infographic laying out his vision of the history of email. An August 2011 blog story celebrated the 29th anniversary of his invention of email and was picked up around the web, including the Huffington Post. Fast Company’s website was soon reporting the advice of “the man who designed email as we know it” to the United States Postal Service. TIME posted a lengthy online interview with “The Man Who Invented Email.” The Washington Post was no more credulous than these other publications in its story “Inventor of E-mail Honored by Smithsonian.” But the story’s transition from blog to print brought it greater scrutiny and, ultimately, an apology from the newspaper’s Ombudsman.
What Influence Did Ayyadurai’s Work Have on Later Systems?
As far as we know, none.
Nothing in the portfolio of evidence on Ayyadurai’s website suggests that his system was ever widely known or that its technical details were ever published in conference proceedings, journal articles, or technical reports. It is therefore hard to see how the world would have found out about any novel features it possessed. His strongest evidence for impact is the publication of the name of his entry in the awards booklet of the 1981 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and a 1980 report in the West Essex Tribune described his “design and implementation of [an] electronic mail system.” Winning the Westinghouse competition, or even being national finalist, might attract attention but in fact he was merely awarded “honors,” a distinction shared by 12 youngsters in New Jersey alone that year. The West Essex Tribune did no single out anything about the system as novel, but did call it sophisticated and useful. It felt no need to explain the concept of an electronic mail system to its readers.
What About Ayyadurai’s “First U.S. Copyright On Email”?
Journalists reporting on Ayyadurai frequently confuse the kinds of intellectual property protection provided by copyright, patent, and trademark. For example, Callie Crossley of WGBH stated, a week after the Washington Post’s lengthy Mea Culpa, that he “owns the copyright to the term email, and the concept.” Patents protect inventions and will be awarded only to the initial creator of an invention. So being awarded a patent reflects at least a preliminary judgment of novelty. Trademark protection can be applied to a new word or phrase to enforce exclusive commercial use. Ayyadurai does not hold a patent for the invention of email, or a trademark on the word. All he has is copyright on his program code and its user manual.
Ayyadurai himself has contributed to this confusion by referring to his copyright form as if it was a milestone in email history. His history of email states that “August 30, 1982 marks the 29th Anniversary of EMAIL, marked by the formal issuance of the copyright for ‘EMAIL’ by the US Copyright Office.” This infographic also implies that copyright to his program gave him ownership of its title by asserting that Associated Press must have been “unaware of U.S. Copyright for ‘EMAIL’” to have decided to stop hyphenating “e-mail” last year.
Under the Copyright Act of 1976 Ayyadurai would have held the copyright to his program whether it was registered or not. Copyright prevents anyone from duplicating his code without his permission. All that the “Certificate of Copyright Registration” featured prominently on Ayyadurai’s website proves is that in 1982 he mailed a printout of his computer code, $10, and a handwritten form to the US Copyright Office. It deposited the check and filed the printout, then stamped the form, added a registration number, and mailed it back to him.
This did not reflect a judgment that the program was in any way novel, and it provided him with no rights over the concept of email or the word “email.” Nobody can copyright a word. Copyright protection explicitly excludes ideas, titles, and short phrases. So the code of Ayyadurai’s program is covered by copyright, but not its title of “EMAIL.” Consider a musical example. Lou Reed wrote a song called “Rock and Roll.” So did Led Zeppelin. Both the songs were copyrighted by their respective publishing companies. Neither of them owned the term “Rock and Roll” as a result of writing these songs. Neither of them had to show that they had invented rock music to receive the copyright. Neither of them coined the phrase (that was Alan Freed).
Did He At Least Create the Word “Email”?
“Electronic mail” was widely discussed in the 1970s, but was usually shortened simply to “MAIL” when naming commands. However, the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition online) gives a June 1979 usage (“Postal Service pushes ahead with E-mail”) so Ayyadurai was not the first to use this contraction in print.
The program name “EMAIL” is not mentioned in the 1980 newspaper article on Ayyadurai but does appear in his 1981 Westinghouse competition submission. By that year the name EMAIL was in use by CompuServe. Compuserve had offered timesharing computer access and electronic mail to businesses for years. In 1979 it launched a new service, aiming to sell otherwise wasted evening computer time to consumers for the bargain price of $5 an hour. A trademark application (later abandoned) that CompuServe made for “EMAIL” listed 1981/04/01 as its first use by the company, which fits with this May 1981 message mentioning CompuServe’s “EMAIL program.” By January 1983 “Email™” (for trademark) was part of CompuServe’s advertising campaign.
For years CompuServe users could type “GO EMAIL” to read their messages. Whether Ayyadurai or CompuServe was the first to adopt “EMAIL” as a program name it is clear that CompuServe popularized it.
Who invented email? Ayyadurai is, to the best of my knowledge, the only person to have claimed for him or herself the title “inventor of email.”
Email has no single inventor. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who contributed to significant incremental “firsts” in the development of email as we know it today. Theirs was a collective accomplishment, and theirs is a quiet pride (or at least was until recent press coverage provoked them). Email pioneer Ray Tomlinson has said of email’s invention that “Any single development is stepping on the heels of the previous one and is so closely followed by the next that most advances are obscured. I think that few individuals will be remembered.” None of them have hired public relations firms to remedy this.
However there are billions of us who clearly didn’t invent email. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai is one of the billions of people who didn't invent email. No hedges or qualifiers needed.
The history of ARPANET electronic mail, and its evolution by the 1980s into Internet electronic mail, is by far the best documented facet of email’s history. It is clearly told by historian Janet Abbate in her book, Inventing the Internet, for a general audience in Katie Hafner’s readable Where Wizards Stay Up Late and in detail in Craig Partridge’s paper “The Technical Development of Internet Email.”
Developments at Xerox PARC are also well documented. The 1979 Laurel manual is included in this file of documentation for the Alto system. The story of PARC, and the commercialization of its technology in the Star, is told in Michael A. Hiltzik’s book Dealers of Lightning.
Less has been written on pre-ARPANET electronic mail or on more recent developments. I summarized the development of electronic mail as a commercial product in my chapter “Protocols for Profit: Web and E-mail Technologies as Product and Infrastructure" in the 2008 book The Internet and American Business.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to the dozens of people who sent me hundreds of messages after learning that I was working on a response for the Post. Many helped to read and shape earlier drafts. In no particular order: Evan Koblentz, Catherine Lathwell, Peter Meyer, Dave Walden, Debbie Deutsch, Marie Hicks, James Sumner, Ken Pogran, Tom Van Vleck, Dag Spicer, Mark Weber, JoAnne Yates, Murray Turoff, Al Kossow, Ramesh Subramanian, David Alan Grier, Paul McJones, Nathan Ensmenger, David Hemmendinger, Jeffrey Yost, David Moran, Peggy Kidwell, Debbie Douglas, Alex Bochannek, Bill McMillan, Len Shustek, Petri Paju, Elizabeth Finler, Dave Crocker, Ray Tomlinson, Pierre Mounier Kuhn, James P.G. Sterbenz, Ben Barker, Jim Cortada, and Craig Partridge.
How Has the Story Progressed Since March 2012?
Ayyadurai continues to present his claims vigorously, and has succeeded in winning some continuing media attention for his claims to have invented email.
Before looking at some of Ayyadurai’s new evidence and arguments, it’s worth taking a moment to consider a few things that the material on the site and in the paper still does not do.
I thus see no reason to modify any of the major conclusions or arguments presented in my earlier analysis.
How Accurate is the Boston Magazine Article “Return to Sender”?
A lengthy article by Janelle Nanos entitled “Return to Sender” was published in the June issue of Boston Magazine. She spoke to and emailed with me when researching it. Overall the article is clearly written and I learned quite a bit from reading it. For example, it reveals that MIT had rejected Ayyadurai's use of the term “MIT Email Lab” and no longer employs Ayyadurai. The characterization of my involvement is basically correct though she did get my job title wrong (I’m actually an Associate Professor). More broadly, someone who critically and thoughtfully reads the entire article will probably reach an accurate conclusion about the merit of Ayyadurai’s claims.
My reservations hinge on its tone and presentation, which are liable to mislead the casual reader. Nanos clearly wanted to achieve some narrative zip, but categorizing all of those who objected to Ayyadurai’s claims as enraged “geeks” takes flippancy a little too far. Had she not defined SIGCIS as a “sort of Internet cabal within the Society for the History of Technology” I would never have guessed that “cabal” was the collective noun for historians.
Its structure is also a little odd. Presumably in order to boost narrative drama the story takes Ayyadurai’s own perspective for the entire first page, and only later quotes various experts to establish an overwhelming consensus against his claim to have invented email. However Nanos sticks during this final section with the default journalistic mode of “report the controversy” and does not draw any conclusions of her own. In contrast, the article’s subhead calls him the ”Inventor of email” and the third paragraph tells us that “his greatest accomplishment had come when he was just 14… Shiva had invented email, an accomplishment that would, in time, change the course of human communication.” That statement is in the authorial voice, with no quotes or other distancing. A writer with more finesse might have found a way to temporarily misdirect readers without bluntly misinforming them.
What are Ayyadurai’s Latest Claims?
The new website posted at www.inventorofemail.com around June 1st 2012 has professional production values. Most content is new, though some scanned documents and the original infographic made it through from the previous version. There’s a video introduction, statements from Ayyadurai, Chomsky, and the director of the lab where he was employed 30 years ago, a selection of new scans of the program code, and a section purporting to refute 12 numbered “False Claims About Email.”
Ayyadurai's faith in himself as the one and only creator of email shows no signs of being shaken by argument or evidence. The new site insists that "Email has a singular inventor. That inventor of email is V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai." His is the "singular and rightful position as the inventor of email."
The code snippets do give some insight into the workings of Ayyadurai’selectronic mail system. During my last visit to Smithsonian in June 2012, Ayyadurai’s materials were still not available for viewing, so these conclusions are of necessity preliminary. It seems from the online extracts that the system was based around a shared database so that most actions – adding a user, sending a message, receiving a message, etc. consisted of inserting or removing records from database tables. According to Ayyadurai’s former supervisor, Leslie P. Michelson, these records were replicated across several different computers running the database software. This approach is most suited for a small local network and would be very hard to scale up for a nationwide or international email network. It greatly simplifies system design by eliminating the need to create new communication protocols for message transmission. The system was apparently controlled by two letter command codes, with a menu option to display a list of available commands and select them numerically.
It remains possible that Ayyadurai’s electronic mail system was the first to offer some particular combination of features not previously available. Uncertainty on this point is caused largely by a lack of reliable historical data on the many other internal and proprietary email systems in operation by 1980. But even if his electronic mail system is eventually shown to have been the first to offer a useful piece of functionality that would not make this “the first electronic mail system” or Ayyadurai the “inventor of email.” It might, for certain purposes, make it a better electronic mail system. I suppose www.creatorofaquiteearlyemailsystemwithmanyusefulfeaturesatanimpressivelyyoungage.com would not have the same bold appeal, but it could well be a legitimate claim.
A “History of Email” tab takes now includes a lengthy “History of Attacks Against the Inventor of Email,” fulminating against Tom Van Vleck, MIT, TechDirt, Gizmodo, an unnamed “SIGCIS ‘Historian’”, an unnamed blogger, the Washington Post Ombudsman, various Wikipedia contributors, Boston Innovation, Boing Boing, the Internet Society, The Verge, David Crocker, various sponsors and conference organizers, the chairman of the MIT Biological Engineering Department, Dave Walden, the Internet Hall of Fame, David Thorburn, William Uricchio of MIT’s comparative media studies program, and BBN. Appendices chronicle in minute detail edits made to Ayyadurai-related pages on Wikipedia, alleged “revisionism” perpetrated by Tom Van Vleck, and whatever is meant by the baffling “APPENDIX D – Attempts to Confuse ‘EMAIL’ is not ‘email.’”
Ayyadurai's carefully curated mass of evidence that his claims have been rejected by experts and former colleagues is, apparently, intended to reveal a massive and well organized conspiracy to suppress the truth. According to its conclusion, “BBN has much to gain by continuing to misuse the term ‘email.’ Using false claims, industry insiders such as BBN and others believe that they can revise and alter history to ensure the facts of Dr. Ayyadurai's invention of email is discredited, so the public is confused into thinking that email existed prior to 1978.”
Elsewhere on the site he writes that "BBN has put a great deal of effort to [sic.] their own branding as innovators by presenting a public face that they are the 'inventors of email.'... Clearly such a branding effort is to support BBN's sales efforts." Ayyadurai argues that all objections to his claims are motivated by a conspiracy to "perpetuate a false history of email by discrediting Ayyadurai's invention." The guilty parties are "industry insiders, supported by SIGCIS 'historians', Ray Tomlinson, BBN supporters and ex-BBN employees."
As a putative cog in this vast conspiracy I am categorized as “part of the industry insider clique” in “deliberate and reckless ignorance of the facts” and a “‘historian,’ a part of industry insiders such as BBN, RAND, and DARPA” who “rabidly attacks Dr. Ayyadurai while promoting false claims.”
How Well Do These New Claims Hold Up?
Engaging in prolonged debate with a conspiracy theorist is rarely productive. So rather than attempt dozens of counter rebuttals to the mountain of new material I will instead offer two broad observations.
First, the site presents a few selective web-sourced quotes as “myths” and attempts to discredit their authors but doesn’t really engage with the massive body of evidence and historical writing about electronic mail prior to 1980. Ayyadurai cherry picks quotes from the authors of early electronic mail systems about their limitations and highlights minor disagreements among participants as if this could somehow obscure the existence of electronic mail in the 1970s. In particular there are no references to books such as Where Wizards Stay Up Late, Inventing the Internet, Transforming Computer Technology, Dealers of Lightning, or The Dream Machine. All these books discuss electronic mail in the 1970s.
Second, the attempted refutations do not seem particularly convincing to me. For example, “False Claim #4” is that “RFCs demonstrate ‘email’ existed prior to 1978.” Whereas, according to Ayyadurai, an RFC, or Request for Comment, is not “a computer program or code or a system,” and so is presumably unfit to be historical evidence. This ignores compelling evidence that the protocols described in the RFCs were indeed implemented and accessed via powerful client software, composing what users at the time called electronic mail systems.
Ayyadurai can’t quite decide whether he is overthrowing historical consensus or defending it from sinister “revisionists.” On his main page his proclaimed aim is to challenge accepted history: “Standard histories of the Internet… are full of claims that certain individuals (and teams) in the ARPAnet environment and other large companies in the 1970s and 1980s ‘invented email.’” Elsewhere he writes as if his position was widely accepted, claiming that “Email was clearly defined in 1978” through his own work, formalized by his 1982 copyright filing. He decries a “revisionist definition by industry insiders” intended to overthrow this generally accepted definition of email as “the electronic interoffice, inter-organizational mail system.”
As this insistence on his right to control the definition of “email” suggests, Ayyadurai’s case now rests on a highly idiosyncratic definition of the word intended to exclude all electronic mail systems created before his.
Is Email the Same Thing as Electronic Mail
As my previous discussion made clear, the phrase “electronic mail” was widely used during the 1970s to describe a variety of systems. I am not aware of any concerted effort to challenge the appropriateness of this usage prior to Ayyadurai’s recent publicity drive. No responsible historian would advance a definition of “electronic mail” that went against established historical usage. To do so would be to say to the pioneers of the 1970s, “Look, we know that you called what you were doing electronic mail, the users of your systems called them electronic mail, the press called them electronic mail… but it turns out you were all wrong. None of those things were really electronic mail. It hadn’t been invented yet.” Instead, a historian would craft a working definition of electronic mail that was compatible with its actual usage.
Ayyadurai’s current website finesses this by almost entirely avoiding reference to “electronic mail,” as if ignoring the term would make it go away. Instead he defines all other systems of the 1970s as mere “electronic messaging” systems. Instead he contrasts this "messaging" approach with his email system, arguing that he was the first to take direct inspiration from paper-based mail. Acknowleding that the Post Office was widely seen as central to electronic mail in the 1970s and that most electronic mail systems of the 1960s and 1970s included "mail" in their titles would cripple his ability to develop this line of argument.
He also places great importance on his claim to have been the first to use the word “email” and to have been the first to copyright a program of that name. This implies that email had a quite different meaning from electronic mail, and that as the creator of the word he has some kind of right to dictate a meaning for it quite different from the meaning already established for electronic mail.
But when “email” entered the language it was as a simple contraction of “electronic mail” rather than as a new word with a distinct meaning. Ayyadurai’s own use of the word follows this pattern – one of the portions of 1982 source code he has posted under the heading “Main Subroutine of Email” does indeed include “PROGRAM NAME EMAIL” but this followed by a comment lock headed “ELECTRONIC MAIL SYSTEM.”His copyright form shows the alternative title “Computer Program for Electronic Mail System.” Email was a contraction of his system’s full name of “electronic mail,” imposed (as his admits) by a five character limitation on program names within his operating system.
Even if Ayyadurai does eventually produce evidence that he used the linguistic contraction “email” in 1978, and this turned out to be the earliest documented usage, what would that really signify? We acknowledge John Logie Baird as the inventor of TV as well as television, even though he called his machine the Televisor. The Wright Brothers didn’t call their flying machine a “plane” in 1903 and the Oxford English Dictionary has no reference for this contraction of Aeroplane being used until 1908. Yet we not honor the first person to shorten the word as “the inventor of the plane.” Alexander Graham Bell patented an “acoustic telegraph” in 1876 but is today remembered as the inventor of both the telephone (a name he did adopt) and the phone (a contraction the OED does not show usage for until 1880). Marconi worked for years on what he called a system of “wireless telegraphy” but is nonetheless remembered for this effort as the father of radio. It is likewise natural and appropriate for us to think of the electronic mail systems of the 1970s as email, even though they would not have been called this at the time.
In any event, Ayyadurai’s previous website identified him as creator of the first “Electronic MAIL system,” which further undermines this line of argument. Likewise, his infographic includes for 1979 the heading “Memos to Electronic Mail.” In 2010 he was hyphenating the name of his system as “E-Mail”. His claim to be the inventor of email is also a claim to be the inventor of electronic mail.
How Compelling is Ayyadurai’s Definition of Email?
One of the five main tabs on Ayyadurai’s new site is “Definition of email.” This presents a short version (“email is the electronic version of the interoffice, inter-organizational paper-based email system”) and two lengthy checklists. The first checklist presents 32 distinct features of the traditional mail system, all of which he claims were necessary (“if any one component was taken away…you no longer had a functioning interoffice mail system.”) The second checklist repeats these, with some additional items added, and places a check mark by each one to indicate that Ayyadurai’s system had that capability. There are 87 of these check marks. If I understand his argument correctly then this signifies that a system must possess 87 specific features to properly be called email.
Has this definition been widely accepted since 1978, as Ayyadurai claims? No it has not. Indeed, Ayyadurai’s own website did not include these definitions of email until recently. The old site (prior to June 2012) offered a quite different six point definition of “an E-Mail System.” These six points were: User-Friendly Interface; A Rich Set of Features; Network Wide; Security and Login; Enterprise Management; Database and Archival. The definition was originally presented as the work of one Matthew J. Labrador. Labrador claims to have “met Shiva in 1981 in a computer science class” and to have been impressed by his modesty. He recently been motivated by inaccurate reports on email origins to “do my own research… to provide readers with a more comprehensive and holistic history.” Ayyudari’s resume lists Labrador as a student whose bachelor’s thesis he supervised in 1990. Labrador, whose prose style closely resembles Ayyadurai’s own, expressed awe at Ayyadurai’s accomplishments (“in writing this History, I was amazed at the vision that Dr. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai had even as a 13 year old, in developing that first E-Mail system”), acknowledged his graciousness in providing materials, and proceeded to show that Ayyadurai’s system met this unorthodox six point definition. (Since the page was captured in June 2010 Ayyadurai has stopped hyphenating, switching his entire site first from “E-Mail” to “EMAIL” and now to “email.”)
The new definition is presumably the product of what Janelle Nanos described in Boston Magazine as “a quixotic quest” launched by “Shiva and his teaching assistant, Devon Sparks,” to “fight the institutional giants he says are attempting to ‘steal’ his story.” Accord to Nanos, they had “assembled a dossier of the attacks against him, and have examined every messaging program that existed prior to his own to demonstrate exactly how his system is unique.”
It is easy to challenge specific items within the 87 point definition. Some are vague, such as “Easy-To-Use User Interface.” Others seem overly specific, such as “Adding a ‘Zipnode’, new network>”. Some seem like frills rather than core email functions, such as “Print only the ‘envelopes’, To, From, Subject, Date.” Four specify different ways of sorting the address book. Ayyadurai’s system failed to include at least one of his essential ingredients: “Relational Database Engine.” Elsewhere on Ayyadurai’s site his former supervisor correctly identifies the Hewlett Packard IMAGE/1000 software used as “a non-relational, hierarchical database management system.” (See also section 4 of this technical documentation for a full description of IMAGE/1000).
Likewise, many widely used modern electronic mail systems lack some of these features, which are much easier to implement on a local network than a global one. Centralized, searchable address books are missing from modern Internet email, as are delivery confirmation, “Shutdown of the entire system” and “Startup of the entire system.” Programs like Eudora and Outlook Express do not use relational databases for message storage. More importantly, they would fall victim to the same logic Ayyadurai uses in “False Claim #10” to dismiss Xerox PARC’s Laurel as “not email, but a front-end to text messaging programs.” (He also misreads the very quotations he presents about Laurel, which include the sentence “Laurel is now replacing MSG,” to present Laurel as a front-end to the terminal-oriented MSG program rather than a replacement). Ayyadurai argues that Laurel was merely “graphical front-end to a series of messaging programs,” or in other words an email client that relied on a server to send and receive messages, rather than a complete “system of interlocked parts.”
Yet Ayyadurai includes both Eudora and Outlook Express prominently as email milestones in his infographic history. The only relevant distinction I can see between these programs and Laurel is that they were produced after 1980 and so can be assimilated as part of his alleged legacy rather than dismissed with sophistry.
In conclusion the “definition of email” he presents is untenable for two reasons. Firstly, it flies in the face of actual historical usage of “electronic mail” and “email” from the 1970s onward. Second, it excludes not only most of the electronic mail systems of the 1970s but also many of the electronic mail systems in use today.
Was Ayyadurai’s System “Invented” in 1978 or 1980?
Ayyadurai’s recent statements highlight his insistence on applying the date 1978 to all aspects of his “invention.” This can produce some odd results – the site features an image from the 1982 code submission below a heading “EMAIL was named in 1978 in FORTRAN IV.” As mentioned previously, his original infographic timeline identified 1978 as the year in which “the challenge” to produce the system was made, 1979 as the year in which “the attributes of a memo… are converted into an electronic system” and 1980 as the year in which “the first version of the system is designed and deployed for use.” In 1981 he submitted an entry based on the system for the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and in 1982 he mailed his code to the copyright office and received a registration number. The copyright form he submitted identifies the code as having been written in 1981. His timeline shows 0 “EMAIL accounts” in 1978, 2 in 1979, and 50 in 1980.
We generally date an invention from the time a new technology is actually demonstrated to work. For example, Leonardo sketched a helicopter design in 1493, but the helicopter was not truly invented until working machines flew in the 1930s. This “reduction to practice” is a central element of invention in patent law. I thus give credence to the 1980 date from the original timeline for design and deployment of the first version of his system.
Ayyadurai insists that if an electronic mail system lacks any of the many, many elements in his definition it is “not email.” Even if we were to accept his definition of email, this would mean that email was not “invented” until all these elements were present in at least a prototype form. He has presented no evidence that all of these capabilities were in place prior to 1980.
What About Noam Chomsky?
In perhaps the oddest twist of the whole affair, Ayyadurai has published not one but two statements attributed to Noam Chomsky in support of his claim to have invented email. The first was apparently intended for Emi Kolawole’s ill conceived “roundtable” on Ayyadurai’s claims. The second was issued as a press release some time later.
Reading the longer statement it is hard to recognize the scholarly qualities that won Chomsky his renown. It recaps some of Ayyadurai’s own talking points on the conspiracy of industry insiders and the vital importance of Ayyadurai’s copyright registration. I recall Chomsky’s usual prose style as being a little more elegant, his grammar and punctuation a little more standard, his capitalization more restrained, and his exposition a little more cogent. It’s odd that a great linguist would write sentences such as “Note Shiva, received his formal Copyright registration in 1982.” Or “What continue to be deplorable are the childish tantrums of industry insiders who now believe that by creating confusion on the case of ‘email’, they can distract attention from the facts.” Or “Note by the Copyright Act of 1976, once a work is in publication it is protected.” The English in the passage “…a false branding that BBN is the ‘inventor of email’, which the facts obliterate” is also a little strained. Finally, it’s baffling to me that Chomsky would cite the free online Merriam-Webster dictionary as a linguistic authority on the first usage of email, especially when this is contradicted by the far more comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary.
Wired Magazine was able to get a quote directly from Chomsky: “What I found out seemed to confirm his story… I read his documentation, the counterarguments, his responses, and his position seemed to me plausible.” The problem is that Ayyadurai’s claim to have invented the first email system cannot be judged purely from his own materials. If true, this would imply not only that his system was email, which is indeed indisputable, but also that none of the systems operational before 1980 were email. Responsibly evaluating the latter claim would involve in-depth research on the capabilities of those dozens of earlier systems and formulation of a reasonable definition of “email” grounded in actual historical usage. Neither the quote from Wired nor the content of Chomsky’s published statement suggests that Chomsky has done this work. He is, after all, a very busy man.
Thomas Haigh is a historian of information technology. He is Associate Professor of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee and holds a Ph.D. in History & Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania. He chairs the Special Interest Group on Computers, Information & Society (SIGCIS) for IT historians.