V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai

The man who "invented EMAIL"

In November, 2011, there was a sudden uproar over a man, V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai, claiming to have invented email/EMAIL. The first and most important thing to clarify is the use of "email" versus "EMAIL", because case matters here. The word email (or e-mail) is a word that denotes "electronic mail", and is generically applied to any technology that incorporates sending and receiving electronic mail messages. The term "EMAIL" (all caps) refers to a specific computer system for electronic mail. This is readily apparent in Ayyadurai's copyright registration (TXu000111775 / 1982-08-30). That means that "EMAIL" was a system for using email, but not necessarily the first. It only means that Ayyadurai was the first to apply for a copyright on the name, and he may have done so based on previous public usage of the term. For example, one image of Ayyadurai on his own web site is titled "vashiva-time-man-who-invented-email.png", where 'email' is in lower case. One could argue that as a filename, he stuck to lower case. On the other hand, why name the image this instead of "vashiva-time.png"?

The second issue, and just as important for the purpose of this article, is clarifying what Ayyadurai claims to have invented exactly. It is immediately suspect that he went on a press binge in late 2011, appearing to ride the wave of attention it brought. Why didn't he make a bigger deal of this years before? It is also important to note that he does not appear to dispute any of the press or their perception of events, rather he embraces and openly flaunts it on his own web site. To better examine this point, one only has to read the news articles about his claims.

I had the opportunity to sit down with V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, who holds the first copyright for "EMAIL" - a system he began building in 1978 at just 14 years of age. It was modeled after the communication system being used at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark, New Jersey. His task: replicate the University's traditional mail system electronically.

And with that, email - as we currently know it - was born. -- Time Magazine
V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai has nothing against the tech pioneers who started sending one another messages over the Arpanet - the Internet's predecessor - in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He just asserts that he was the first person to build an e-mail system that would evolve into the type of e-mail we use today, with fields for the sender and recipient, subject lines, and that devious BCC field. -- Boston Globe
Shiva modeled his simple, generic user interface after the memos he'd seen in use at the university. "A typical MAIL had the title of MEMORANDUM, with 'To:', 'From:', 'Date:', 'Subject:', 'Cc:', 'Bcc:', 'Attachment', elements. This was the meaning of MAIL," Shiva also writes on his site. -- Huffington Post

These quotes, some directly from Ayyadurai, make it abundantly clear that he is taking credit for inventing 'email' (lower case) as we know it. He specifically justifies this claim by citing the use of headers such as sender, recipient, subject line, and the BCC field. All of this in 1978 according to him, while getting a copyright on 'EMAIL' (upper case) in 1982. Ayyadurai also created an infographic showing the 'history of email' that specifically lists "Pre-EMAIL Innovators" (note: one of which is Crocker et al, RFC 733, discussed later). That gives a well-defined point of reference to investigate his claims. The one other possibility to consider, which he apparently has not, is that he may have 'invented' some portions of email concurrently, without knowledge of other researchers. Given how definitive he is his statements, that is not likely.

There are two basic points to examine, that shed light on Ayyadurai's claims:

Number 1: Email Origin

The Wikipedia page on Email goes into the origin of email, citing three distinct systems/programs that did exactly what Ayyadurai claims to have invented. The page references MIT's Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) MAIL in 1965. This is footnoted by an excellent write-up on the history of electronic mail by Tom Van Vleck, an early user and administrator of Multics. He points out that a proposed 'mail' command was first mentioned in December 1964 or January 1965. Wikipedia goes on to mention the Unix mail program (1972) and APL Mailbox by Larry Breed (1972).

Looking at these in a historical context, multiple email systems had been around starting in 1965. While Ayyadurai was only 14 when he started his email system, that means his in 1982 was already 17 years after the first, and 10 years after the mail command on Unix. It is understandable that he may not have been familiar with CTSS, but not having access to or being told about Unix at that point seems more difficult to believe.

The Wikipedia article summarizes all of this as:

In 1971 the first ARPANET email was sent, and through RFC 561, RFC 680, RFC 724 and finally 1977's RFC 733, became a standardized working system.

Number 2: Email, as Seen Through RFCs

An RFC, or Request For Comments, is a "memorandum published by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) describing methods, behaviors, research, or innovations applicable to the working of the Internet and Internet-connected systems." Essentially, RFCs are the commonly accepted building blocks and a blueprint for how the Internet and related technology should be implemented to guarantee interopability. While RFCs are not mandatory for adoption, it encourages more people follow the guidelines to ensure they can 'speak' to other networks. More importantly, for our purposes, they show a detailed history of technical ideas.

If the information above still leaves you wondering, consider a blog post on the Washington Post where almost 100 user comments refute the claim as well, many of them citing additional excellent resources:

With this many resources out there showing a factual history of email, one has to wonder why so many big publications took Ayyadurai's word at face value.

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