The Curious War Over Who Founded Email

March 7, 2016, 5:09 PM UTC
Email introductions should benefit both parties, not just you.
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The scientist who married actress Fran Drescher has quite a bit to say about the man credited with inventing email, who died on Sunday.

Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai has once again rebuffed claims that Ray Tomlinson was the father of traditional email. In a series of tweets and retweets, Dr. Ayyadurai said that he’s “the low-caste, dark-skinned” Indian who created email. He followed that with a blog post titled, “Correction: The Inventor of Email Is Still Alive.” The post’s sub-headline says “the inventor of simple text messaging has passed on.”

Dr. Ayyadurai, who has long claimed to be email’s creator, said that he invented the electronic-messaging platform in 1978, when he was just 14 years old and working as a research fellow at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He created a software system, eventually known as “EMAIL,” that he says, “duplicated the features of the Interoffice Mail System, which was simply a manila envelope that physically circulated around a workplace. The envelope contained the Interoffice Memo with Attachments, and comments from various recipients on a given topic.”

It’s a claim the scientist has made countless times in the past. Indeed, his voice has only grown louder over the last several years as his claims have been drowned out by industry groups and historians.

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Ray Tomlinson, who died suddenly on Sunday after suffering a heart attack at the age of 74, was a computer programmer at research and design company Bolt Beranek and Newman (now BBN Technologies) in Cambridge, Mass. Along with other programmers, Tomlinson is said to have begun experimenting with software-based internal messaging at the company in 1971. Tomlinson ultimately decided that the best way to communicate between team members would be to send a text-based message between computers using the network (and predecessor to the Internet) ARPANET. In order to determine where the messages should go, he routed them using an “@” symbol.

“The keyboards were about 10 feet apart,” Tomlinson said in an interview with NPR in 2009. “I could wheel my chair from one to the other and type a message on one, and then go to the other, and then see what I had tried to send.”

Tomlinson was widely recognized for his contribution to electronic communication. He was inducted in the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012, and in 2011, was listed fourth in the MIT 150 list of top 150 innovators and ideas. Ironically, Dr. Ayyadurai earned his Ph.D. in biological engineering from MIT in 2007.

While industry titans and historians have long credited Tomlinson with being a prominent figure in the development of traditional email, Ayyadurai gained some notoriety in 2012 when The Washington Post ran a story about his accomplishments. In that story, the Post referred to the Smithsonian’s decision to buy some documentation and other material, including lines of code, from Ayyadurai, to document the history of email. However, the Post went on to say that Ayyadurai had invented email.

The Founder of Email, Ray Tomlinson, Dies

Within minutes, people from all over the Internet took issue with the claim, and news site TechDirt went on the offensive. The site, which focuses on in-depth technology stories, wrote that claims that Ayyadurai was email’s inventor are “not actually true.” The story pointed to several forums and sites on the Internet, where historians said he was responsible “merely for inventing an email management system that he named EMAIL.”

One of the more outspoken critics was the Special Interest Group Computers, Information and Society (SIGCIS), an organization comprised of many prominent Internet historians and college professors. In a statement in 2012 in response to the Post’s piece, SIGCIS called claims that Ayyadurai invented email “rather shocking,” adding that saying he invented email is similar to calling “Bill Gates the inventor of windows,” referring to actual windows and not the software program he developed.

“Setting aside the dubiousness of Ayyadurai’s assertions, there are already a number of well-known claimants [to] the title of inventor of email,” the organization said. “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 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.”

Soon after, the Post issued a correction, saying it “incorrectly referred to V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai as the inventor of electronic messaging.” A lengthy dispute to Ayyadurai’s claims was posted to SIGCIS’ site was also published. Like the previous rebuke, the SIGCIS post said that email had many inventors, but Tomlinson was one of the most prominent.

Indeed, Tomlinson himself is said to have been quite modest about his place in history. Despite earning a critical place in the email lore, he told the University of Maryland in an interview in 2002 that email advances were made possible by “stepping on the heels of the previous one and is so closely followed by the next that most advances are obscured.” He added that he thought “few individuals will be remembered” in the history of email’s founding.

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Ayyadurai, however, has taken a different tack in fixing his place in that story. He has trademarked “The Inventor of Email” and has a website by the same name describing email’s history, its definition, and how he “invented” it. In his blog post describing why he claims he wasn’t credited with founding email, Ayyadurai says it could be a case of racism.

“I have no doubt that my origin and ethnicity have strongly influenced controversy over my invention of email,” he wrote. “This has also influenced the withholding of recognition for that invention, and for personal and racist attacks directed against me.

“In many ways I just did not fit the mold of a 1970s high tech innovator,” he added. “I was not white, I was not working for the military or for a defense contractor, and I must have seemed too young and too naive to stand up for the truth.”

Now, though, Ayyadurai says that he wants the world to know “the truth,” but he’s not writing about his claims in “vanity or vindictiveness.”

“It is simply upholding the important principle of accurate, appropriate, and fully earned recognition,” he wrote.

Ayyadurai did not respond to a request for comment.

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