Why Is Huffington Post Running A Multi-Part Series To Promote The Lies Of A Guy Who Pretended To Invent Email?

from the that's-just-wrong dept

I thought this story had ended a few years ago. Back in 2012, we wrote about how The Washington Post and some other big name media outlets were claiming that a guy named V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai had “invented email” in 1978. The problem was that it wasn’t even close to true and relied on a number of total misconceptions about email, software and copyright law. Ayyadurai and some of his friends have continued to play up the claim that he “invented” email, but it simply was never true, and it’s reaching a level that seems truly bizarre. Ayyadurai may have done some interesting things, but his continued false insistence that he invented email is reaching really questionable levels. And, now it’s gone absolutely nutty, with the Huffington Post running a multi-part series (up to five separate articles so far — all done in the past 10 days) all playing up misleading claims saying that Ayyadurai invented email, even though even a basic understanding of the history shows he did not.

Let’s take care of the basics first, and then we’ll dig in on what’s going on here, because it’s really quite ridiculous. First off, no one denies that V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai — an apparently very bright 14-year-old at the time — wrote an email software program for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) in 1978. By all accounts, it was a perfectly decent email system that allowed the UMDNJ staff to send electronic messages. Further, no one doubts that, in 1981, Ayyadurai registered the copyright on his program, which was called EMAIL. The problems are that (1) email was invented long before 1978, (2) the copyright is merely on the specific software code, not the idea of email, and (3) while Ayyadurai may have independently recreated the basics of email (and even added a nice feature), none of his work was even remotely related to what later became the standards of email. What’s most sickening about this is that as part of this new PR campaign, Ayyadurai is ridiculously arguing that the reason no one believes him isn’t because he’s simply wrong, but because they can’t stand to believe that “a dark-skinned immigrant kid, 14 years old,” invented email, and that it was done in “one of the poorest cities in the US” rather than at a famous university.

Again, that might make for a nice story line if there were some factual basis behind it, but there isn’t. The history of email is well-documented from multiple sources and it began way, way before 1978. And while early versions were somewhat crude, by 1978 they had basically everything that Ayyadurai claims to have invented (it is entirely believable that Ayyadurai, as a bright kid, independently came up with the same ideas, but he was hardly the first). There was a messaging system called MAILBOX at MIT in 1965. You can read all the details of it here, including source code. Ray Tomlinson is frequently credited with inventing the modern concept of email for the internet by establishing the @ symbol (in 1972) as a way of determining both the user and which computer to send the email to. By 1975, there were things like email folders (invented by Larry Roberts) and some other basic email apps. As is noted, by 1976 — two years before Ayyadurai wrote his app — email was 75% of all ARPANET traffic.

So, let’s get to the Huffington Post trying to whitewash all of this factual history out of existence.

It started on August 20th, with an article by Larry Weber, CEO of Racepoint Global, kicking off a supposed “series” called “The History of Email.” Except that the series has little to do with the history of email at all. It’s just about Ayyadurai writing his particular email program in 1978. Great story. Smart kid done good. Has nothing to do with the invention of email. Weber, though, calls it The Boy Who Invented Email. At this point, it should be worth questioning why Weber suddenly decided this was such an interesting story. If you don’t know, Weber is one of PR’s biggest names, having built one of the most successful PR companies in history. It seems odd that he “just happened” to come across Ayyadurai’s fake story and decided to help create a 5-part series about it. I have reached out to both Weber and the Huffington Post to ask if Weber has any financial relationship with Ayyadurai. As I publish this, neither has responded. The post will be updated if I hear from either. None of the posts in the series disclose any such relationship. Nor does the Huffington Post indicate that this is a “sponsored” post as far as I can tell.

The second and third articles in the series are both written by Leslie Michelson, the Director of High Performance and Research Computing at Rutgers Medical School (which took over UMDNJ a while back). More importantly, in 1978 he was the Director of the Laboratory Computer Network at UMDNJ, and apparently “challenged” Ayyadurai to create an electronic interoffice mail system. The fourth article in the series is by Robert Field, a technologist at Rutgers Medical School and, in 1978, a colleague of Ayyadurai at UMDNJ. See a pattern? Huffington Post also interviewed Ayyadurai for HuffPost Live in which he mostly attacks anyone who challenges his story, comparing himself to Philo T. Farnsworth — except in that case, Farnsworth actually invented TV before anyone else. Ayyadurai did not do that with email. Apparently there are two more in this series that are still to come.

When you look at the collection of articles, they all repeat the same basic things: Ayyadurai did create an email system and “it was recognized by the federal government.” This is misleading in the extreme. It’s amusing how they all use the exact same language. Larry Weber claims:

On August 30, 1982, the US government officially recognized V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai as the inventor of email by awarding him the first US Copyright for “Email,” “Computer Program for Electronic Mail System,” for his 1978 invention. This was awarded at a time when Copyright was the only way to protect software inventions.

Leslie Michaelson says:

On August 30,1982, V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai received official recognition as the inventor of email from the U.S. government, for the work he had done in 1978.

Every article in the series includes this image of his copyright registration:

Except, if you know anything about copyright, you know that what they’re claiming is not at all true. The registration of copyrights is about as close to a rubber-stamping process as is possible. It has nothing to do with “inventions” at all, but is rather a copyright for the specific software program. Ayyadurai received a copyright on his email program and that’s it. It has absolutely nothing to do with him being the inventor of email.

Microsoft holds a copyright on Windows, but no one claims it “invented” the glass things you look outside your building with. Hell, no one even claims that Microsoft invented windowing user interfaces, because it did not. The name of the program and the fact that you can copyright it does not make you the “inventor” of the concept behind it.

Weber, Ayyadurai and his friends try to counter the “it’s a copyright, not a patent” claim with an incredibly misleading response. Here’s Michelson:

On August 30, 1982, Shiva was issued the first Copyright for “Email”, “Computer Program for Electronic Mail System.” At that time, Copyright was the equivalent of a patent, as there was no other way to protect software inventions. Only in 1980 was the Copyright Act of 1976 amended to protect software. Patent law had not even caught up to software in 1980

Copyright was not, and has never been “the equivalent of a patent.” Copyright and patents are two very different things. Copyright protects specific expression. Patents protect inventions. That’s why copyright protected only the specific code that Ayyadurai wrote, rather than the concept of email. While it’s true that software wasn’t considered patentable by many at the time, that doesn’t, in any way, mean that a copyright on a particular piece of software was the equivalent in any way, to a patent at the time.

To further their argument, both Weber and Michelson include nearly identical, but slightly different, infographics on the history of email, which (of course) start in 1978 with Ayyadurai’s work. According to those charts, email was barely even a thing outside of UMDNJ until 1985 when offline email readers come about. The infographic is the work of the impressive sounding International Center for Integrative Systems. What’s left out is that the “Founder and Chairman” of the International Center for Integrative Systems happens to be… a guy named V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai. The same infographic tosses in a “milestone” in email in 1995, when “Echomail” launched. Doesn’t sound familiar? Echomail was a company started by… V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai.

The rest of the articles seem to just focus on attacking those who actually were involved in the invention of email and who dared to speak out against Ayyadurai’s claims. The story, which includes no actual support, is that the folks at BBN decided in the early 80s that email security was a big business opportunity and rewrote history. Whether or not BBN played up their role in the history of email is debatable, but none of that changes the fact that they (and many others) were using email, and had email software, long before Ayyadurai did anything. At no point do any of them address the long history of email systems long before Ayyadurai arrived on the scene. Instead, they just talk about this grand conspiracy theory, claiming (ridiculously) that if BBN were outed as not being the inventor of email (even though no one really claims the company was the inventor of email) it would harm its business. That makes no sense at all. First of all, BBN’s history of work related to the internet is long and well-detailed (there’s even a fantastic book about it). Even if it had nothing to do with email, it’s other work is much more impressive. Second, the company is currently owned by defense contracting giant Raytheon. Does anyone honestly think Raytheon cares one way or the other who “invented email”?

All of their “debunking” claims rest entirely on a RAND report written by David Crocker in 1977, where they take two sentences totally out of context. Here’s what Ayyadurai, Weber and their friends claim Crocker said:

“At this time, no attempt is being made to emulate a full-scale, inter-organizational mail system. The fact that the system is intended for use in various organizational contexts and by users of differing expertise makes it almost impossible to build a system which responds to all users’ needs.”

It’s telling that Ayyadurai and his friends never actually tell you the name of the report or link to it. Because actually reading what Crocker wrote would undermine their argument. The report is called “Framework and Functions of the ‘MS’ Personal Message System” and you can read it here. Not only do Ayyadurai and his friends take Crocker entirely out of context, the two sentences above are not even contiguous sentences. They’re not even on the same page. The first sentence is on page 18 of the paper. And it just says that this particular implementation (the program called MS) is focused on certain facets, and for MS “no attempt is being made to emulate a full-scale inter-organization mail system” even though the entire point of the paper is how various email implementations are clearly replicating inter-organizational mail systems. The second sentence comes on page 21 (with lots in between) and just focuses on the fact that lots of users have very different requests and desires, and it’s impossible to satisfy everyone — and that it, alone, is beyond the scope of this project. He’s not, as Ayyadurai implies, claiming that building an interoffice email system is impossible. He’s claiming that creating a full system that satisfies absolutely everyone is impossible. However, he does make it clear that other components are being worked on, and when combined could create a more functional email system. Here’s that part, back in context:

To construct a fully-detailed and monolithic message processing environment requires a much larger effort than has been possible with MS. In addition, the fact that the system is intended for use in various organizational contexts and by users of differing expertise makes it almost impossible to build a system which responds to all users’ needs. Consequently, important segments of a full message environment have received little or no attention and decisions have been made with the expectation that other Unix capabilities will be used to augment MS. For example, MS has fairly primitive data-base management filing and cataloging) facilities and message folders have been implemented in a way which allows them to be modified by programs, such as text editors, which access them directly, rather than through the message system.

From the actual source documents (which, again, Ayyadurai and his friends fail to link to and totally misrepresent), it’s clear that all Crocker is saying is that no single system will satisfy everyone’s current interests. He’s not saying it’s impossible to create an interoffice email system. He’s just saying that lots of different people have lots of different needs for an interoffice email system, and for the team building MS, it would be too difficult to satisfy everyone’s exact requests, so they’re focusing on certain features, knowing others will add other components later. And, given that people are still working to improve upon email today, it seems that’s still basically true.

Back to the rest of the paper, which actually does a tremendous job undermining basically all of Ayyadurai’s claims (again, which suggests why no one names or links to the full paper) — in the very first paragraph (again, this is prior to Ayyadurai doing anything) it talks about research for “computer software” for “electronic mail.” Ooops. It goes on:

This report describes the design of one such program–the “MS” message system. Early electronic mail systems have existed on the larger computers. MS incorporates and expands upon many of the functions and concepts of such systems within an integrated package…

In other words, the very paper that Ayyadurai and his friends insist prove that there was no email prior to 1978 talks in depth about a variety of email programs. Again, remember that this was written in 1977. This is not historical revisionism. It goes on:

One of the earliest and most popular applications of the ARPANET computer communications network has been the transfer of text messages between people using different computers. This “electronic mail” capability was originally grafted onto existing informal facilities; however, they proved inadequate. A large network greatly expands the base of potential communicators; when coupled with the communication convenience of a message system, there results a considerable expansion to the list of features desired by users. Systems which have responded to these increased user needs have resided on medium- and large-scaled computers.

In other words, lots of folks are working on email systems. Ayyadurai tries to brush all those aside by saying that his actually included things like “folders.” But again, Crocker’s paper notes:

Messages reside in file “folders” and may contain any number of fields, or “components.”

It actually has a whole section on folders. It also shows some sample messages at the time, showing “to,” “from,” “cc,” “subject,” and “message” fields, showing that the very basics of interoffice mail (such as “cc” — standing for carbon copy, which was a standard bit of interoffice mail) had already moved into email. Here’s a screenshot (which you can click for a larger version):

Ayyadurai has built up his entire reputation around the (entirely false) claim that he “invented” email. His bio, his Twitter feed and his website all position himself as having invented email. He didn’t. It looks like he wrote an implementation of an email system in 1978, long after others were working on similar things. He may have added some nice features, including the “blind carbon copy/bcc” concept (Update: Nope, bcc was in a 1977 RFC). He also appears to have potentially been ahead of others in making a full address book be a part of the email system. He may, in fact, be the first person who shortened “electronic mail” to “email” which is cool enough, and he’d have an interesting claim if that’s all he claimed. Unfortunately, he’s claiming much, much more than that. He’s set up an entire website in which he accuses lots of folks, including Techdirt, of unfairly “attacking” him. He apparently believes that some of the attacks on him are because he spoke out against corruption in India. Or because people think only rich white people can invent stuff. None of that is accurate. There’s a simple fact, and it’s that Ayyadurai did not invent email.

He does not even attempt to counter any of the actual facts. The documents that are presented are misleading or out of context. He misrepresents what a copyright registration means. And his main “smoking gun,” in support of his claim that people are trying to unfairly write him out of history, is presented in a misleading way, out of context, with two entirely separate sentences pushed together to pretend they say something they didn’t.

He’s clearly quite proud of the email software he wrote in 1978, and that’s great. He should be. It may have made some incremental improvements on what else was already out there, but it is not inventing email. It’s also entirely possible that he was wholly unaware of everything else that was out there. And, again, that’s great. We’ve talked many times in the past about multiple people coming up with the same ideas around the same time. Ayyadurai should be quite proud of what he’s done. But he’s simply not telling the truth when he claims to have invented email. His website is full of accolades from the past, including his Westinghouse award (which is a prestigious award for high schoolers), his copyrights and his later patents. There are local newspaper clippings. That’s all great. It reminds me of the folder my mother has on all the nice things that happened to me as a kid. But none of it means he invented email.

It’s unclear why Huffington Post is publishing this ludicrous and disproven narrative. It’s unclear why one of the biggest names in PR is involved in all of this, though you can take some guesses. But there are facts, and they include that “electronic mail” existed long before V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai wrote his program as a precocious teenager. Huffington Post is either not disclosing a paid-for series of posts (which would be a massive ethical breach) or they’ve been taken for a ride. Neither option speaks well of HuffPo and its journalistic integrity.

Filed Under: , , , , , , , , , ,
Companies: huffington post

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Why Is Huffington Post Running A Multi-Part Series To Promote The Lies Of A Guy Who Pretended To Invent Email?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

For the same reason POPSCI is running an ad full of wild speculation and FUD, but focusing heavily on an overpriced “secure” android handset:


Or, the same reason CNN runs a dipshit that thinks 4chan is a systems administrator:


(Because they’re fucking lazy with facts, like most media.)

art guerrilla (profile) says:

oh, huffpoo has actual articles ? ? ?

i thought it was all celebutard circle jerks and ’10 reasons why you will die if you don’t read this sensationalistic crap’ headlines…
really, i only go to huffpoo for nip slips and to laugh at the celebutards…
otherwise, it is a national enquirer for pretentious, pretend pwogwessives…


It's even worse...

Mike’s response to this nonsense is flawed. It focuses on the proto-Internet. However, this was not the only incubator for early email tech. There is the entire BBS scene to consider too. Plus there’s the early online services to go along with it (like Compuserve). Pretty much everyone was solving this particular problem in different ways, for different types of users, and on different scales.

A complete accounting of this situation is a great example of why it’s a BAD idea to try and attribute ANY interesting invention to a single person.

The notion of the “lone inventor” is a myth that plays well in America but it is seldom really the case.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re: It's even worse...

Very true.. I was running a Fidonet node in Aust (Zone 3) in 86 and vividly remember it.

It was admittedly bigger than BITNET but was only developed in 84.

Though is considered to be the first E-mail network (not application) for IBM Compatible computers.

Though Electronic mail has been around in some form (or concept) since computers (and actually before) have ever been connected together. In fact AUTODIN provided a very basic messaging system way back in early 60’s.

Anonymous Coward says:

Actually, he didn’t invent cc, bcc, etc either:

optional-field =
“To” “:” #address
/ “cc” “:” #address
/ “bcc” “:” #address ; Blind carbon
/ “Subject” “:” *text
/ “Comments” “:” *text
/ “Message-ID” “:” mach-id ; Only one allowed
/ “In-Reply-To””:” #(phrase / mach-id)
/ “References” “:” #(phrase / mach-id)
/ “Keywords” “:” #phrase
/ extension-field ; To be defined in
; supplemental
; specifications
/ user-defined-field ; Must have unique
; field-name & may
; be pre-empted

RFC: 733 dated 21 November 1977

sorrykb (profile) says:

Maybe he’s working on a sequel to his book and wants to drum up publicity.

The forward (which can be read using the “Look Inside” feature) to the Kindle edition is interesting, speaking of a “cabal” out to undermine VA Shiva Ayyadurai.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: He's right about one thing

I can’t help but wonder what Tim Geigner thinks about this. A couple weeks ago, when I had the audacity to point out that in many cases where minorities raise the spectre of racism to explain away their problems, it’s a purely cynical act of people who know (and want) the benefits of being perceived as a victim, he emphatically denied that that happens and accused me of being racist for saying something so horribly P.I. and insensitive.

And now we see someone blatantly doing exactly that. Hmm…

sorrykb (profile) says:

Re: Re: He's right about one thing

Since you bring it up, it’s helpful to have a look at your past posts for context.

Here are a few arguments supporting genocide:

And one arguing that racism is dead and the only real racists are people who raise the issue of racism.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: He's right about one thing

“Supporting genocide”? Seriously?!?

Wow, it takes a really special kind of twisted to take words that oppose people whose stated goal is the outright extermination of an entire ethnic and religious identity and saying that that ideology has no legitimacy, and turn that into an accusation of supporting genocide!

What are you, some kind of nutcase?

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 He's right about one thing

Sorry Mason, from your comment:

we’d respond exactly the way Israel is, and we would be completely justified in doing so

Many people consider what Israel is doing to be at least an attempt at genocide, so suggesting that doing the same thing could be “completely justified” is a bit damning for you.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 He's right about one thing

Then the oh-so-vague “many people” don’t know what genocide means, because it does not mean throwing invaders out of your country.

Genocide means the complete extermination of a certain racial group. (You know, what a lot of the nearby Arab governments have declared to be an official policy goal in regard to the Jewish people?) To actually make an attempt at genocide, or even come anywhere close to it, Israel would need to invade their neighbors–all of them. And then their neighbors as well. There is an immense world of difference between that and not sitting idly by their neighbors to invade and colonize their own country and then attempt to drive them out of it with violence and force.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 He's right about one thing

To actually make an attempt at genocide, or even come anywhere close to it, Israel would need to invade their neighbors–all of them.

No, they would have to try to kill every Palestinian – which some people argue they are trying to do.

Now, I will not make any claims that I fully understand the details, but looking at the wiki page regarding the attacks in 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Israeli_strikes_and_Palestinian_casualties_in_Operation_Protective_Edge I find the word civilian 49 times and child 68. That seems bad to me.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 He's right about one thing

Whether or not they are trying to “kill every Palestinian,” that’s still something very different from genocide. A bunch of Arabs from Jordan packing up and moving to the country next door does not establish them as a distinct racial identity.

When you use really strong words like “genocide” in situations where they are not appropriate, they end up becoming meaningless. Just look at how the media, over the last couple decades, has turned the word “addiction”–meaning a condition in which loss of access to an addictive substance presents a medically significant danger to the addict–into a silly term for “thing that someone really likes doing.”

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 He's right about one thing

…and elsewhere in the world, with significant help in certain parts from his Arab allies. He’s gone now; they’re still at it.

(Seriously, that’s got to be one of the silliest invocations of Godwin’s Law ever. Please learn something about history before you try to use it to back you up.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 He's right about one thing

The UN definition of genocide also includes nationality and a few other aspects, not just race. After all, Jews aren’t a distinct race either (despite what Hitler said).

Calling all the Arabs in the former Mandate of Palestine immigrants from Jordan is obviously wrong – what of those who already lived in the area, and those who fought in the Palestine Campaign (and who were promised both the Transjordan and the West Bank at the fall of Jerusalem)? After all, those people are purer descendants of those who lived there in Roman times than most German or Russian jews.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 He's right about one thing

Exactly. Remember that, their cynical attempts to rewrite history notwithstanding, the “Palestinian” people don’t belong there. It’s not their land, and it’s not their home.

OK, for this post, I’ll concede. Here, in fact, you’re supporting “ethnic cleansing”, not genocide.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Ayyadurai was way too late

A mail command existed in Bell Labs Unix v6 by 1975; here’s the manual page for it: http://man.cat-v.org/unix-6th/1/mail

It may have existed in earlier versions of Unix as well, but I’ll have to do some research to figure out if that’s the case. And to find out who wrote it.

Of course other operating systems had similar functionality, and BBS systems did so as well. By 1978, email was already fairly mature and in 1979, with the introduction of Unix v7 and UUCP, Usenet was born (thanks to Truscott, Ellis and Bellovin) and handled email, file transfers, and (Usenet) news. Eric Allman’s “delivermail” was in use on the ARPAnet by 1980 because it was part of 4.0 BSD and 4.1BSD. By 1985, contrary to the picture painted by these ridiculous charts, email was flowing all over the place: on the ARPAnet, via Usenet, via CSnet, via BITnet, and probably others I’m omitting at the moment. And delivermail had been supplanted by “sendmail”, which was part of one of the follow-on BSD distributions, maybe 4.1c or similar, circa 1983. (One of the more challenging tasks for postmasters of the day was gatewaying mail between disparate networks with different addressing methods: addresses like ki4pv!tanner%ucf-cs.csnet@csnet-relay.arpa were baroque, but functional.)

Meanwhile, people like Dave Crocker and Jon Postel and Suzanne Sluizer were doing some/most of the heavy lifting when it came to thinking about the big picture/long term, writing standards, etc. RFC 821 (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) dates from August 1982 (see http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc821.txt) and builds on earlier work described in RFC 722 (September 1980, http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc772.txt).

All of the software above and all of those standards are the progenitors of the contemporary email environments: RFC 821 has been updated twice, sendmail still moves a lot of mail, and its open-source “competitors” like postfix were written by people who were obviously very familiar with it. It’s worth noting that Unix mboxes from v7 are STILL readable/usable today using standard Unix tools — a reflection of both the pervasiveness and endurance of the software and the standards.

By contrast, Ayyadurai’s work came much too late for him to be given any credit for “inventing email”, and none of it is relevant, AFAIK, to the evolution of both the standards and the software that make up today’s email ecosystem.

JP Jones (profile) says:

Like most great computer inventions, email was developed by multiple independent teams of engineers trying to solve the same problem.

Computers are generally too complex to truly “invent” something on an individual scale…if you think a lone person invented it, it was probably already attempted by a team. Specific interfaces, graphics, and hardware aesthetics can be “invented” by individuals…programming solutions tend to be created by software engineers working together.

I’m sure there are exceptions out there but, like most inventions, you can trace the inspiration for any great idea to all the great ideas before it.

Colin Watson says:

Re: Re: Re:

At 14 back then, that much is entirely plausible. The world was pretty disconnected and you could easily not know about something if it hadn’t shown up in the right magazines or whatever. The experience needed to do this kind of thing would be more along the lines of being a good programmer with some interesting design ideas; unusual before the microcomputer revolution, but not out of reach of a smart 14-year-old with access to the right basic networking facilities.

Dave Cortright says:

Let's get the courts involved!

If copyright is “the equivalent of a patent,” then Mr. Dark Skinned child prodigy should take Hotmail, Gmail, Ymail and all the other *mails of the world to court and reap all of those juicy license fees that he is clearly due.

Oh wait, he hasn’t done that because the results would only reinforce the complete insincerity of his claims.

James Salsman says:

Telex and TWX were equivalent to email by 1938

Both the Telex (then Germany) and TWX (USA) protocols had stations (like domains) with individual machine-parsed recipient IDs over telegraph and ratio by 1938. The Hughes printing telegraph (ticker tape) in 1855 had human-routed addressing from all-points telegraph cable transmissions, but would ring a bell upon receipt of messages with certain strings used for addressing on them.

sidvicious says:


i stumbled on mike’s article via reddit. timely so, since i read the huffpo series yesterday.

i was struck by a few things, some of which mike mentions. 1) the lead-in language in each chapter is nearly identical. i thought this was strange; odd writing at the very least. 2) the chronology seemed to have large gaps in it.

i can’t recall the name of the program, but i was an early 90’s adapter of email. the program was something i stumbled upon and soon after, it was ubiquitous, but it wasn’t mentioned in the article.

3) outlook express was much more ground-shaking than outlook.

you guys correct me here, but echomail wasn’t a big deal for the masses, was it?

anyway, there was something about the article, including the things i mentioned, that caused me to scratch my chin.

i can see why a PR guy would get involved; to push a product. but, its a bit odd that the huffpo would get bit like this. despite the blather on the site they have some good tech people there, i think. seems like they would fact-check a story like that. maybe not.

anyway, good article, mike. we’ve never met and likely never will, but nice job on this.

DaveK says:

I don't see why Ayyadurai is so unhappy.

Ok, so he may be going to miss out on the credit for inventing email, but why’s he bothering to get all upset about an insignificant thing like that? If he wants fame, applause, and Nobel prizes, he has only to show us his time machine, which he must have used to invent something in 1978 that had already existed for years!

Ted the IT Guy (profile) says:

CompuServe and BBSs

Interesting, I was using email pretty regularly on my local BBS and later via Compuserve around that time… I had no idea that this guy invented it! {/sarcasm}

Anyway, from what I can tell, this joker claims that his email system was the first ‘complete’ email system. He lists a bunch of features that his system supported and claims that all of them are required for a fully functional system.

I suppose that I could just as easily claim that a ‘feature complete’ email system must have a subsystem to dispense adult beverages to recipients every time annoying business buzzwords are used in company-wide email…

Dave Cortright says:

Re: email vs. e-mail

Actually, the trend was to include a hyphen initially, and then the hyphen gets dropped. If one presumes that usage in books roughly mirrors use on the Inter-net and in spoken conversation, the only thing he was ahead on was in hyphen dropping.


Brian Dear (user link) says:

PLATO also had email, starting in 1974

On the PLATO system it was written by Kim Mast and called “Personal Notes” (as opposed to PLATO Notes, which was the group message forum system created by 17-year-old Dave Woolley in 1973). Historical tidbit: Ray Ozzie, who also worked on PLATO, named what became Lotus Notes after PLATO Notes years later.

By 1978 Personal Notes was a massive thing on the various PLATO systems that were beginning to be internetworked allowing for “intersystem” personal notes. Instead of the @ symbol, PLATO used the / symbol, so it would be something like “user name / organization / systemname” as the address. Or just “user name / organization” if the recipient was on the same timeshared system as the sender.

Brian Dear (user link) says:

By the way . . .

Be sure to visit this guy’s “Inventor of Email” page on Facebook. I’m not sure which I like more, the fact that when I visited it it had a grand total of 4 likes, or the fact that the page type is “public figure.”


Oh, but wait, there’s more. A second Facebook page exists as well. Because, why have one page when you can have two?


The second one has 175 likes. And it clearly, brazenly states “Inventor of the world’s first EMAIL system.” Wow, just wow.

Dave Crocker (user link) says:

Standardized 'memo' model before 1978

Very nice job. Thanks!

And you actually read the Rand report. Journalism that seriously explores independent sources… Wow.

Better still: Your article prompted me to finally remember that my Rand report was not the only reference to the ‘memo’ model for email that was used on the Arpanet (and continues to be used on the Internet.)

The 1977 RFC 733, which finally resolved various existing behaviors for Arpanet mail and even used the word ‘standard’ in the title, also cites it:

‘A general “memo” framework is used…and is primarily useful for most intra-organization communications and relatively structured inter-organization communication.’

Brian Dear (user link) says:

Even the Times of India has been fooled

The misinformation is spreading. The apparently unedited, unvetted, crowdsourced Huffington Post is one thing, but it’s a shame to see the prestigious Times of India fall for this too:


Maybe it’s time to call in the Snopes.

Thomas Haigh (user link) says:

More on Ayyadurai

As a professional historian focused on computing I have maintained an in-depth treatment of Ayyadurai’s claim to have invented email and his evidence at http://www.sigcis.org/ayyadurai. There should be enough detail there for anyone.

Mike is quite right to focus on the difference between copyright on a document and patent on an invention, which Ayyadurai is working very hard to blur. One additional snippet from my research: it seems unlikely that Ayyadurai was the first to contract “electronic mail” to “email” as the OED has a 1979 usage for “e-mail” and Ayyadurai’s earliest documented use of the term appears to be in 1981. Until he recently changed his story, Ayyadurai’s own infographic timeline had shown that “the first version of the system is designed and deployed for use” in 1980.

Alexander Magoun (user link) says:

Invention of television

Just to be clear, Philo Farnsworth did not invent television; he invented and demonstrated the first all-electronic TV system in 1928. Charles Jenkins and John Logie Baird demonstrated electromechanical systems in 1923-24, and Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton outlined approaches to electronic video cameras and displays between 1908 and 1920.

As with all systems, many people and organizations participated in the development and standardization of television, including the variants that have little to do with the most popular outcome.

StanE says:

Suggestion that might prevent legal actions

@Mike: I think that you could write something like “e-mail” in your headline and content text, instead of “email”. Just here and just to prevent legal actions from Shiva Ayyadurai. Since he just copyrighted the term “EMAIL”, he might not be able to sue you if you say that “he is not the inventor of e-mail” (since he can claim something just for the term “email” and nothing else).

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Suggestion that might prevent legal actions

Since he just copyrighted the term "EMAIL"


He didn’t copyright the term "EMAIL" at all. Short phrases and titles are NOT copyrightable. From the copyright office itself: Copyright Protection Not Available for Names, Titles, or Short Phrases

What he did get a copyright on was the computer code for a program named "EMAIL".

Microsoft holds copyrights and registered trademarks on a lot of software named "Windows", but that doesn’t mean Microsoft invented the windows-style GUI at all. Microsoft borrowed the concept from other existing operating systems at the time.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...