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Who Invented E-mail?
Our esteemed chair, Tom Haigh, noticed a rather shocking set of stories in the mainstream press today that claimed that a man previously unknown to the computer history community was, in fact, the inventor of e-mail:
Tom dug into the story, and it turns out that V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai's claim to fame rests on his copyright of a program named "EMAIL". One could just as well call Bill Gates the inventor of windows, an impressive feat for such a young-looking man. As Tom aptly put it:
What shocks me is that real newspapers could print this kind of thing. Obviously journalists are too busy to read the historical literature. Even calling a historian might take an hour or two to arrange. But are they even incapable of using Wikipedia and Google? Why is the Washington Post employing as the “editor of ideas@innovations”... someone who doesn’t know the difference between patent, trademark and copyright? Did all the real journalists get downsized? Should we look forward to “William Shatner: the Inventor of Television" [?]
Setting aside the dubiousness of Ayyadurai's assertions, there are already a number of well-known claimaints the title of inventor of e-mail. Most notable is Ray Tomlinson, who built the first electronic mail system that worked across the ARPANET, the precursor network to the modern Internet. In the 1960s, however, a number of multi-user computer systems had message-delivery systems with "inboxes" to allow users to communicate with one another. The most famous was the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) at MIT. But there also was messaging software on the PLATO computer system at the University of Illinois. In fact it seems that any time multiple people were using the same computer or the same network, someone created an electronic messaging system so they could communicate.
As with the computer itself (and most things of any significant complexity), e-mail was "invented" as a cumulative process, to which many people (most of them effectively, if not literally, anonymous) contributed. From simple "inbox" text files to which other users could append messages, to more sophisticated messaging systems, to inter-computer messaging across a network, to more elaborate and robust protocols that could support the diverse computers of the Internet, to attachments of non-text files to e-mail, etc., etc. The contributions of Dr. Ayyadurai to that process, as far as we can tell, amount to little more than a copyright filing.
Addendum: Dave Walden was kind enough to point out some additional articles that shed some additional light on the history of e-mail
[Corrections: It should be Dr., not Mr., Ayyadurai, and the Time story was on one of its blogs, not in the magazine per se.]