Advertisement

A discredited old yarn resurfaces about who 'invented' email

A discredited old yarn resurfaces about who 'invented' email
Where did email start? Not where the Huffington Post thinks. (Kin Cheung / AP)

The Huffington Post has been running an enormous five-part series about the invention of email. It's a heartwarming story. It begins:

"In 1978, a 14-year-old boy invented email." 

It continues: "Email wasn't created, with a massive research budget, in big institutions like the ARPANET, MIT or the military....Email was created in the heart of inner city Newark, NJ, at a relatively small institution, with little to no funding."

This all would be heartwarming -- if it were true, that is.

But it's not true. The story has been retailed for years by its putative hero, the then-14-year-old V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, who today has several advanced degrees from MIT on his resume and works as an entrepreneur.

Over the years, Ayyadurai's claim been swallowed by numerous publications, including the Washington Post, the New York Times and even The Tech, the student newspaper at MIT. They all ended up running retractions. (Patrick Pexton, who defended the original piece as the Post's then-ombudsman, had to run his own separate retraction.)

The Huffington Post doesn't quite function the same way. Its response to naysayers in the tech community pointing out that Ayyadurai didn't invent email includes a truculent assertion that doubts about Ayyadurai's claim represent myths "fabricated by industry insiders to hijack the invention of email." But it also has backed off--a bit--from the claim that Ayyadurai invented email. More on that in a moment.

First, here's the history. Email was, indeed, "created, with a massive research budget, in big institutions like the ARPANET, MIT or the military."

To a large extent it was the product of the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, which launched the ARPANET program to create a network tying together the disparate computer science programs it was funding around the country. Much of the story is told in "Dealers of Lightning," my book about Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, and "Where Wizards Stay Up Late," by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. The ARPANET, after several generations, evolved into the Internet.

Electronic messaging even predated the ARPANET program--one form was used at MIT as early as 1965--but that was where the protocol was developed and codified.

Many, many engineers and scientists worked on messaging programs--some of them extremely famous within the Internet development community for their work. But to the extent there is a single "inventor" of email, the term usually is applied to Ray Tomlinson of Bolt Beranek and Newman. BBN was a major contractor on the ARPANET. In 1971 or 1972, Tomlinson made a couple of key refinements to the existing message protocol, including the use of the "@" sign as a component of message addresses. After that, as an authoritative history of the technology observes, email quickly matured "from a fun idea to a central feature of the Arpanet (and later the Internet)." 

What about Ayyadurai? In 1978, he designed an email system for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and called it "email." Later he copyrighted the term. The Huffington Post series asserts that "at that time, Copyright was the equivalent of a patent, as there was no other way to protect software inventions." But that's ridiculously untrue. A copyright is not a patent, and never was. What was copyrighted in this case, it seems, was Ayyadurai's specific program, period.

It was an iteration of a messaging system for a client, but the "invention" of email? Nuh-uh. By 1978, in fact, email was sufficiently widespread that the first spam message had already gone out.
Rutgers Medical School, which is the successor to Ayyadurai's university client, has been pushing this version of the origin story--three of the Huffington Post installments, as it happens, were written by people associated with the school.
The Huffington Post on Tuesday appended a "clarification" to the series, stating that "electronic messaging predates email" and "there is no intention to take credit where it is not due," but also asserting that "email as we know and experience it today, not electronic messaging, was first created in 1978 at UMDNJ." That claim still doesn't appear to hold water. If Rutgers is hanging its story on the distinction between "messaging" and "email," that's less than nano-thin. 

In short, the true history of email is well documented. In addition to the books cited above, interested readers can consult this piece in IEEE Annals, this piece by Dave Crocker commissioned by the Washington Post after its flub, and another chronicle by historian Tom Van Vleck. At techdirt.com, Mike Masnick has been assiduously following the Ayyadurai and Huffington Post sagas here and here

Keep up to date with The Economy Hub by following @hiltzikm.

Advertisement
Advertisement