The Inventor of Email Did Not Invent Email

By Mario Aguilar on at

V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai is a fraud who has been masquerading for years as the pioneering mind behind email. At least according to a bunch of geeks who mobilised from all corners of the digital world to try to set the record straight.

The imbroglio began late last week with a routine news report and it was settled, appropriately enough, with a detailed email.

TechDirt reports that last Friday, The Washington Post wrote about what should have been a sweet acquisition by the Smithsonian Institution:

The Smithsonian has acquired the tapes, documentation, copyrights, and over 50,000 lines of code that chronicle the invention of e-mail. The lines of code that produced the first "bcc," "cc," "to" and "from" fields were the brainchild of then-14-year-old inventor V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don't believe that Ayyadurai invented email in 1978. The doubters say that all Ayyadurai did was write a computer program called "EMAIL," which he copyrighted in 1982. While I in no way want to undermine Ayyadurai's accomplishments, there's a pretty strong case that he's full of it. The fact is that networked communication actually predates Ayyadurai's computer program by quite a few years.

While holding a copyright might be good enough for some people, the internet cognoscenti weren't going to have it. When they saw that blasphemy in print, they took to Ayyadurai's Wikipedia page, wrote letters of complaint, and debated as only geeks can. TechDirt dug up this wonderful email written by Thomas Haig to the SIGCIS email list. Randell points out that ARPANET sent the first message between two computers back in 1971.

This version of the story makes ARPANET contractor Ray Tomlinson the inventor of email. Tomlinson doesn't quite take credit for the invention, but he does seem to think that the system he was using back in 1971 was indeed email. According to the description on his website:

The first message was sent between two machines that were literally side by side. The only physical connection they had (aside from the floor they sat on) was through the ARPANET. I sent a number of test messages to myself from one machine to the other. The test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them. Most likely the first message was QWERTYUIOP or something similar. When I was satisfied that the program seemed to work, I sent a message to the rest of my group explaining how to send messages over the network. The first use of network email announced its own existence.

These first messages were sent in late 1971. The next release of TENEX went out in early 1972 and included the version of SNDMSG with network mail capabilities. The CPYNET protocol was soon replaced with a real file transfer protocol having specific mail handling features. Later, a number of more general mail protocols were developed.

Notice that Tomlinson never goes quite so far as to call himself an inventor here, and in the page's FAQ, he acknowledges the contributions made to the technology both before and after he sent those first messages. That makes Ayyadurai's claim all the more strange—as if the most important part of the accomplishment was coining a term. Thomas Haig, from the email before, has no patience for the semantics game when it comes to this question:

They seem to be confusing copyright protection with patent protection, and implying that he would only have copyright on a program he created if it was the first of its kind. I could write a program called "OPERATING SYSTEM" tomorrow and hold the copyright, but it wouldn't mean I invented operating systems.

Well put! The Washington Post did publish a correction, which only half-admits that Ayyadurai didn't really invent email. Perhaps the truth is that email as we know it really shouldn't be considered a single person's invention. [TechDirt, The Washington Post, and Roy Tomlinson]