Who is credited with the invention of e mail

This year marks half a century since the invention of email. or does it?

email on acid celebrates its 50th anniversary with an upcoming webinar on the past, present and future of email. but it turns out that there are some questions and controversies surrounding the real “inventor of email”.

A widely accepted story about the origins of email involves a computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson who was working on an early version of the Internet in 1971. However, this story is disputed by a man named V.A. shiva ayyadurai, who says he invented email as a teenage tech whiz in the late 1970s.

Tomlinson and Ayyadurai

Ray Tomlinson and Shiva Ayyadurai

Let’s take a look at these two stories and find out more.

the history of arpanet

arpanet (or advanced research project agency network) was a department of defense program credited with being the foundation of the modern internet. It started as a network of connected computers and then expanded, thanks in part to the support of Vice President Al Gore, who sponsored legislation that helped fund the Arpanet.

In 1971, Ray Tomlinson was hired to help develop the Arpanet and needed a project to work on. In a 2012 interview with Verge, he said, “arpanet was very young and looking for problems it could solve.” So Tomlinson set out to solve problems related to how people used computers to communicate.

according to tomlinson, things were pretty archaic at the time. messages were sent to numbered mailboxes where they were printed and paper delivered to physical mailboxes. furthermore, he could only send messages to people who used the same computer. because computers were so expensive in the ’70s, they had teams of people using them in shifts.

“As proposed, the protocol had a lot to do with how to put ink on paper: formatting issues, where the forms went, what the tab meant, all that kind of stuff. I said that’s too complicated: we just want to send messages to people.”

tomlinson says he saw an opportunity to use the arpanet’s network connections to send messages between different connected computers. Perhaps Tomlinson’s most recognizable contribution to email was his use of the “@” symbol to separate a person from a computer name.

tomlinson says it took him more than two decades to understand the impact of innovation.

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“I didn’t realize this had become a big deal until someone asked the question, just before the 25th anniversary of arpanet, ‘where did email come from?’ several people remembered that I had written this program. a long time ago when and called me; I said, yeah, I did that…”

Learn more about Tomlinson’s story in the following video:

of course, tomlinson admitted that the people at arpanet still didn’t call their program “email”. That term wasn’t coined for several years, and a bright young student whose family immigrated to the US. uu. from India when I was young may have had something to do with it.

ayyadurai’s story

v. a. Shiva Ayyadurai has led an interesting life. He has four degrees from MIT, founded the technology company Millennium Cybernetics in the 1990s, is the author of books on the email industry, ran twice for the U.S. Senate, and was once romantically linked to actress Fran Drescher. in recent years, he has studied and written about alternative medicine and has developed a reputation for promoting conspiracy theories.

ayyadurai also says that he is the true inventor of email and that he has the dot-com domain to back it up.

ayyadurai’s story stems from a summer program through nyu where he was studying computer programming in 1978. that same year, he volunteered at a dental school in new jersey where his mother worked. At just 14 years old, Ayyadurai developed a computerized interoffice mail system for the school, which he called “email.” he would copyright the software in 1982.

Clashes over the Tomlinson and Ayyadurai stories didn’t break out until 30 years later, when major publications began publishing articles giving Ayyadurai credit for inventing email. Time magazine published a Techland interview in 2011, which was followed by a 2012 Washington Post article. The Smithsonian appeared to validate Ayyadurai’s claims after the museum received the documentation from his “e-mail” program and entered them into a permanent exhibit.

according to ayyadurai, there were some significant differences between his program and tomlinson’s arpanet system. When asked about Tomlinson, he told Doug Aamoth of the time:

“ray and tom van vleck really texted. in fact, in one of tom’s first communications he says that his boss would not allow him to do electronic letters internally, which is really the mail. so they were more focused from a messaging point of view: how do you get a message from point a to point b to manipulate another machine at that more central level?

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Learn more about Ayyadurai’s story in this interview with Mo Rocca for Henry Ford’s Innovative Nation TV show:

who invented email? the debate continues

after getting coverage in time and the washington post, people in the tech industry, including many connected to the arpanet, questioned the idea that the email program was really the beginning of email as we know it. This led to corrections and clarifications from both the publication and the Smithsonian.

Although it was initially claimed that ayyadurai’s email program was the first to use the bcc, cc, to and from fields, arpanet members also objected. Tomlinson told Gizmodo that his 1971 solution also included the fields. sam biddle from gizmodo wrote:

“… claiming a product name that is the generic term for a universal technology gives you a lot of space. But creating a type of plane called an airplane doesn’t make you Wilbur Wright.”

In 2017, Ayyadurai sued Gizmodo’s parent company, Gawker Media, and won a $750,000 settlement. Incidentally, he hired the same attorney who represented Hulk Hogan in the lawsuit against Gawker, which billionaire investor Peter Thiel allegedly financed.

While Tomlinson’s invention story was embraced by many in the tech world, Ayyadurai also has some high-profile followers. Although MIT distanced itself from Ayyadurai following the controversy, renowned former MIT professor Noam Chomsky made statements supporting the 1978 date, which Ayyadurai released to the press in 2012:

“email, uppercase, lowercase, in any case, is the electronic version of the interoffice and interorganizational mail system, the email we all experience today, and email was invented in 1978 by a 14-year-old worker. innewark, new jersey. the facts are indisputable.”

Over the years, Ayyadurai has expressed the belief that the denial of his claim to be the inventor of email is racially motivated. After Ray Tomlinson’s death in 2016, Ayyadurai posted a blog entry on his website titled “correction, the inventor of email is still alive”, in which he stated:

“I have no doubt that my background and ethnicity have greatly influenced the controversy surrounding my invention of email. this has also influenced the denial of recognition of that invention and the personal and racist attacks directed against me.

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one day after tomlinson’s death; Ayyadurai also took to Twitter to bid for the title again.

should we leave the past behind?

Which “email story invention” you choose to accept may depend on what resonates most with you. Is it the story of the affable, Steve Wozniak-esque engineer humbly working behind the scenes, or the ambitious young student who overcame obstacles to become a tenacious businessman in pursuit of the American dream?

So who really invented email? At this point in history, the last thing we need is another issue to divide us.

perhaps it’s best to accept both stories as valid in their own right. the digital transformation that has taken place in the last 50 years is truly incredible. Email has become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, and despite the boastful claims of companies like Slack, it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere any time soon.

both tomlinson and ayyadurai set out to solve the same problem and, perhaps unsurprisingly, both came up with similar solutions around the same time that built on existing communication processes. It’s fair to say that both men were pioneers in the email industry and both deserve recognition for their contributions.

who did it first? who did better does it really matter at this point?

email is not the only innovation with unclear origins. There are also disputes over who actually invented the electric light bulb, the telephone, and even Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.

the past and future of email

Sometimes the most revolutionary ideas aren’t recognized as capable of changing the world until you look back. and looking back can often help you figure out what to expect in the future. that’s what we did during an intriguing webinar with our friends at emfluence.

Watch the recording of “The Future of Email, Part 1: Lessons Learned Over 50 Years.” Email on Acid’s Betsy Grondy joins Women of Email Co-Founder and President Jen Capstraw in an insightful discussion about the history of email and where we’re headed next.

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