How The Guy Who Didn't Invent Email Got Memorialized In The Press & The Smithsonian As The Inventor Of Email
from the damn-you-wikipedia dept
Late last week, the Washington Post reported that The Smithsonian had acquired “tapes, documentation, copyrights, and over 50,000 lines of code from V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, who both the Smithsonian and the Washington Post insisted was the “inventor of e-mail.” There’s just one problem with this: It’s not actually true. Lots of internet old-timers quickly started to speak out against this, especially on Dave Farber’s Interesting People email list, where they highlighted how it’s just not true. As is nicely summarized on Wikipedia’s talk page about Ayyadurai, he was responsible for “merely inventing an email management system that he named EMAIL,” which came long after email itself. The Washington Post eventually offered the following “clarification”:
Clarification: 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.
Except… that “clarification” seems to confuse copyright with patents. Copyright is only over the specific copyrightable work created — which would be the specific code he used. It does not, in any way, establish him as “the creator” of “the” electronic mail system — merely an electronic mail system — and hardly the first one. I could write some sort of email management software tomorrow and copyright that… and it would no more make me an “inventor” of email than Ayyadurai.
There’s a detailed history of email over at the NetHistory site, and you’ll note that Ayyadurai doesn’t warrant a mention — which isn’t surprising since his work comes way after most of the important stuff was done. Thomas Haigh sent a detailed email to the SIGCIS list, breaking down what happened. Apparently, Time Magazine ran a profile of Ayyadurai a few months back, calling him “the man who invented email,” which resulted in the Smithsonian’s interest. But even that article notes at the beginning that Ayyadurai actually just holds a copyright on EMAIL, rather than email itself. It even asks about the fact that Ray Tomlinson is often credited as being the inventor of email — and his efforts came much earlier.
Either way, it appears that Ayyadurai has played up this idea that he’s the inventor of email, despite little to back that up (apparently frustrating many people who actually know the history). Yes, he copyrighted a particular bit of code, but there’s little to support the idea that he had very much to do with “the invention of email” in any way. But, that’s not what the Washington Post (or, apparently, the Smithsonian) will tell you…