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…

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Comments on “How The Guy Who Didn't Invent Email Got Memorialized In The Press & The Smithsonian As The Inventor Of Email”

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Machin Shin (profile) says:

The Smithsonian has a long history of doing this kind of thing. They are terrible at being historically accurate. They much prefer to just try and change history to fit their story. I found that out years ago when researching Tesla. I found a site created by a very angry history teacher who informed them of their errors in giving credit for several of Tesla’s inventions to Edison.

drewmo (profile) says:

From The Washington Post itself, August 4th, 1996:

“Electronic mail is the most important two-way communications medium since the telephone, which makes the serendipitous way it was invented in 1973 all the more astonishing.”

I believe you can read the article itself, here:

TOG says:

Please don't flame

Not trying to throw gas on the fire here, and I have read only a bit of the history, but I’m going to defend Ayyadurai.

Let’s look at the article linked as “it’s just not true” in the first paragraph:

What was around before was just messaging through an FTP server.

There had been discussions of standards, headings, folders, etc., but as far as one can tell from the article cited above, Wikipedia, etc., it doesn’t look like anything to that effect had been coded when Ayyadurai wrote his code.

Also, if his code made electronic messaging more accessible to the general populace, and modern email did, in fact, evolve from his code, I think it’s fair to call him the inventor of email (even without quotation marks).

To me this seems like a case of bitterness and envy on the part of people who were in the field at the time who failed to recognize the steps that Ayyadurai took.

Bjorn (profile) says:

reminds me of the wright brothers

while there is some dispute over who actually flew first, there is significant evidence that whoever it was his last name was not Wright. When they received the Wright’s plane in 1948 the Smithsonian secretly agreed that if they could have the plane they would never say anyone else had flown before the Wrights. This contract was eventually exposed through a FOIA request by Stella Randolph and William O’Dwyer. The first in flight may have been Gustave Whitehead, or it might have been someone else, but because of the financial incentive of being able to say that they possess the artifact associated with the Wright Brother’s myth the smithsonian continues to advance something as fact which they know is likely not true.

That TD regular again says:

“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.” That’s true – to catalogue all the developments would be a huge task. – Ray Tomlinson

Guys like ray just want to create and keep creating.

Anonymous Coward says:

Telegraphy Is Email

Dear old telegraphy is email. The term “email” is simply a modern made-up word for something which is old. Customers would go to their local telegraphy service provider, give them a message, then the message would be sent electrically to its destination. The sending was via electric pulses over wires and via radio, exactly the same as happens today. Sure the technology has improved, but the basic idea of sending messages by electricity has been around for hundreds of years. Wireless telegraphy was commercialised (not invented) by Marconi over 110 years ago.

The term “email” is simply putting an “e” (for “electronic”) in front of the existing word “mail”. Golly, what an advance, someone tell the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian really should be doing a whole lot better at providing the historical context. After all, that is supposed to be their job. It would be nice if they were to actually do it.

Daniel Hawkins (profile) says:

We're working without definitions here...

The Washington Post is obviously confused and/or lazy, but I want to point out that everyone in this discussion seems to be operating on their own personal definition of what email is (not to mention what it means to “invent” something).

I’m actually in Shiva’s class this semester (Systems Visualization), and based on my limited interaction with him so far, I would guess that his concept of email is very systems-oriented. He would likely say that lumping all “electronic messaging” together is unwarranted, and that he’s never claimed to have invented that. I am not defending him, as I’m unaware of all the facts here; I am merely suggesting that there may be different ways of thinking about this.

If you say email is a way to send messages between computers, Shiva did not invent it. If you say email is a system that manages the sending and receiving of electronic letters (as opposed to short messages or public messages), acting as the digital version of a postal service, then it is less clear. As others here have pointed out, invention is quite a vague thing to attribute to a single person.

Anyway, the class meets again on Friday, so if you want me to ask him something directly, reply to this comment.

Cyphase (profile) says:

I while back I created a system called the Uber-synchronous N-dimensional Information Visualizer and Extrapolator with Reduced Speed Extension. Recently I decided that the Reduced Speed Extension, along with a few other things, might have been a bad idea, but since I can’t change those things now that the system is live, I’ve been thinking of creating The Admittedly Complex and Hard Yet Obviously Necessary System to sidestep some of the issues I’ve found. This add-on is currently in alpha testing.

If you find any issues that I might have overlooked, please contact the General Oversight Desk and let the guy who answers the phone know what’s up. I’ll take a look when I can.

Devon Sean McCullough (profile) says:

Please don't flame

A 14-year old building his own car – ok, brilliant
but if he invented the car in 1978, what was
that ’76 convertible I used to drive?

We had network mail with every one of these claimed innovations way before 1978.
EMACS had at least two mail sub-systems, RMAIL and BABYL, pre-mouse so 1-key Delete, Forward, Reply, Output to another folder, delivery to, from, bcc, etc., etc., long before the fake 1978 claims.


PS: When a joker claims he invented the automobile in 1978 that’s not news. When a reporter buys such a joke and the Washington Post prints it – now that’s news. Give good interview and today’s press’ll give you a pass on facts?

Rohan Jayasekera (profile) says:

Please don't flame

The “it’s just not true” article isn’t a good one if all it covers is FTP-based; there most certainly were real email systems long before 1978. Like the one I used starting in 1973 (which I see that pkwooster has already mentioned above; we worked at the same company).

In case anyone thinks I could be mistaken about long-ago dates, I still have a 1976 printout of some of my email, and it looks just like the usual email: for each message there are a few header lines (message ID and date/time, From, To list, CC list, Subject), a blank line, and then the body. The only thing that looks strange about it in 2012 is that all the letters are upper case (the online system it ran on gave up lower-case letters in favour of additional special characters), something you will also see if you look at old programming languages such as FORTRAN, BASIC, and COBOL. Back then a lack of mixed case was acceptable because people were used to it in telegraph messages etc., and today we often have the same thing where people don’t bother with capitalization in SMS text messages or in instant messaging or chat. (Speaking of which, I first used IM in 1972 or 1973; it’s not only email that’s old.)

That email system included an API, which I used when I wrote some software that archived emails I wanted to keep, complete with tags (back then we called them “keywords”) that I could run searches on. This was one of the first “products” that I ever built, as some 60 people eventually used it.

willie watson says:


It was this poor guy who did really proved himself as a source of email system. No other person or persons can claim to be its inventor. Just don’t try to degrade a real inventor just on the basis of his color and race. Need to know how to accept these facts.
If these engineers from countries like india and china hadnt been here, we would have been just like Africa.

Ricardo Santos (profile) says:


If a 14 year old build his own plane in 1978, that would certainly be a personal accomplishment.


The 14 year old cannot truthfully claim he invented the plane. Specially if he followed the blue-prints someone else created before hand. Invention requires that you create things on your own.

This is exactly the case here. He claims he invented something that was already running commercially at least 5 years before. And that there was a RFC BEFORE his claim of invention.

Since he repeatedly did try to make people believe something that has being proved over and over to be false. Is not a case of a simple error on his part. Is an overt case of fraud.

To paraphrase Tesla.
“Is not that they stole the idea from me. Is that they do not have ideas on its own.” And he did believed what he said. As he had no problem with Marconi using concepts on his patents without paying. It was the ones that didn’t do anything to further science that got in his nerves.

If the guy is so brilliant. Then, what has he invented afterwards?

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