Who Invented E-mail?

at_symbol.png

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.]

Further developments

To update the story, I'n pleased that our corrective message has been able to get a little bit of traction on the web. After Brian Randell forwarded my critique to the Interesting People list it was picked up by several tech blogs including techdirt , Internet Evolution and Gizmodo.
 
Meanwhile the Smithsonian Blog has published its own story about the acquisition. To be fair to the National Museum of American History, its curators are very skilled and experts in their fields. The post suggests that a box or two of materials was accepted to document what is, after all, still a system of historic interest even though it was not the first of its kind (or the second, or the tenth). There is nothing in it to suggest that the Smithsonian has honored Ayyadurai or endorsed his claim to have produced the first email system (although it does use the word "groundbreaking" the release goes no further than "one of the first"). Unfortunately he was able to spin acceptance of his donation into a new wave of publicity for himself as the inventor of email.
 
I also found some other aspects of Ayyadurai's concerted publicity campaign. There's a web domain, www.historyofemail.net/ featuring his slick infographic. The same content can also be found at www.inventorofemail.com/ and www.dremail.com. This guy really goes to town with vanity domains. The graphic itself was reposted around the web on various blogs and the PC Magazine website to celebrate the "fact" that August 30, 2011 was the 29th birthday of email.
 
What's behind this? Well, one might note that although Ayyadurai's book, "The EMAIL Revolution" featured on his website has a mocked up cover but only "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Quisque viverra quam vitae dui vulputate sagittis...." as its description there is another book that he really has written and published. The title? "The Internet Publicity Guide: How To Maximize Your Marketing And Promotion In Cyberspace." That's one area of his expertise that nobody can challenge.