The 30th anniversary of email was celebrated recently. In an interview, Shiva Ayyadurai, the man who invented email, recently related the fascinating story of how it happened and how he sees the email in future. Here are some excerpts…
If you’re reading this, you’re online and, as such, you probably have an email account. But have you ever wondered about the origins of email? It’s not exactly a cut-and-dried case, as various forms of electronic messaging have been around since the humble telegraph. 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.
In 1981, Shiva took honors at the Westinghouse Science Awards for his “High Reliability, Network-Wide, Electronic Mail System” and attended MIT later that fall. The copyright for the term EMAIL was granted to Shiva in 1982, after which he won a White House competition for developing a system to automatically analyse and sort email messages. That technology eventually became the basis for EchoMail, a service used by several large businesses.
Here’s the interview:
What’s the backstory of email? How did it all come together?
It was purely out of the love of doing it. I was given this opportunity to just program, and this was in 1978 when you couldn’t get a programming job, per se—it was very, very early. I look back on that scene: Here’s a 14-year-old living in New Jersey, and the National Science Foundation put out a call saying they needed to educate the youth on computer programming. There was a very interesting and visionary computer professor at NYU called Henry Mullish, who was at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, a very, very prestigious institute. So Henry basically said, “Okay, let’s get 40 high school students in an immersion program trained on seven different programming languages.” And I was one of those 40 selected. Henry did this interesting thing: He basically taught us all these old programming languages—COBOL, SNOBOL, PL/I—for eight weeks, from June until the end of the summer. So I finished up, and my mom was working at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which is in Newark—my parents had just come from India five years before and my mom was a mathematician. She introduced me to this guy Les Michelson, who was your typical mad scientist—he had worked at Brookhaven National Labs as a particle physicist.
He was given a room to put his first computer in and start the lab for computer science, which was one computer and one HP mainframe. And Les said, “Hey, would you like to create an electronic mail system?” So I said, “Yeah,” and I was just nodding my head, thinking he meant sending electricity through paper, because this guy’s a particle physicist. I came back the next day and he said, “Look, I want you to go observe how people send out mail.” Basically, each doctor had an office and the secretary typed the word “memorandum” followed by the “to:”, the “from:”, the subject line, the body, and then any carbon copies or attachments. And Michelson said, “Your job is to convert that into an electronic format. Nobody’s done that before.”
These guys I was working with were in their 50’s and 60’s, and they treated me as an equal. And I think that was a fascinating thing: Here’s a 14-year-old working among 60-year-olds, and it was like there was no difference. That’s why I think innovation takes place in America. In countries like Indiaor China, a Steve Jobs will never come around. The fundamentals aren’t there—there’s this feudal hierarchy. So just in retrospect, I look back and these guys let me into this very collegial atmosphere.
So the original system was set up for doctors to communicate electronically using the template they were already used to.
Yeah. The way the University of Medicine and Dentistry was set up was that they had three locations—Newark, Piscataway, and New Brunswick. Within each building, they had those old tubes where you’d put the container in and it’d get shot around to the right place. And I just observed how these guys sent mail out. It was fascinating. The secretary would write something, she’d put the carbon copy—literally a carbon copy—in the container and send it out.
So in order to create a real email system, you needed a relational database and you needed to make it really easy. Even today, if you read a Forrester report, I think 15 or 16 per cent of doctors still don’t use e-mail. We had to make a simple user interface: inbox, outbox, folders—those were literally replicas of how these guys communicated using physical mail. And that’s what I ended up doing in ’78 and ’79. We did one of the early demos and wrote the user manual—all this stuff: training, tutorials—and a lot of it was the cultural piece. How do you get people to convert? Would the doctors use it or would the assistants use it? I was planning on dropping out of high school because I was just very bored, and one of my teachers urged me not to drop out, telling me about this thing called the Westinghouse Science Contest—I think they call it the Intel Science Awards now. He told me I should apply for it, and the application was “a High Reliability, Network-Wide, Electronic Mail System.”
And so I ended up winning one of the honors awards out of that. It’s only then that I started realising what the significance was. But when I really noticed it was when I came to MIT in 1981 and on the front page of the paper, they described three students out of the incoming class of a thousand, saying that one of the students designed the first electronic mail system. Then later, I think it was ’81 or ’82, the RFC protocol was changed to add the “from:”, the “cc:”—those things. So that was an afterthought. But when I refer to electronic mail, it’s literally the conversion of this paper mail into electronic mail. And people still don’t get that definition, so that’s why there’s this confusion. They think it was text messaging, so Facebook or any of these other platforms are going to replace it, right?
Ray Tomlinson is often credited as the inventor of email. Is he credited correctly, in your opinion, or should he be credited for something else?
I think that’s the thing that’s sort of resulted in this confusion. Since ’94, people have always said something’s going to kill e-mail—and the latest was text messaging, right? Ray and Tom Van Vleck really did text messaging. In fact, in one of Tom’s early communications he says his boss wouldn’t let him do electronic letters internally, which is actually the mail piece of it. So they were more focused from a messaging standpoint: How do you get a message from point A to point B to manipulate another machine at that more core level?
Are there parts of email you think could be improved now?
I think one of the interesting areas is going to be—and Google+ is sort of doing this—verification of who you are. That security piece. Email marketing firms and some of the large non-profits have set up this thing called Sender ID, so they’ve done it at the IP level—at the server level. And for video, I think there’s going to be ways that when you produce your email, you’ll be able to produce videos easier. Those are just links and attachments now. But email, I think, is a mainstay because it’s still a part of that old interoffice mail communication. It has certain properties that are very different than what you do with Twitter or those kinds of media. It’s almost like there’s a kind of operating system of electronic messaging, and above that are these apps. Email is a fundamental application. Twitter is an application because of the way the medium is used for that. So how is electronic mail going to change? It’s going to really find what it was originally for: business communications, letters—those kinds of things. And then I think you’re going to see this segmentation: quick messaging, colloquial messaging—that’ll be done through text messaging and those kinds of things.
You can read more about Shiva and check out early articles and documents on his website…
– Excerpted from Time
V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, Inventor Of Email, Fires Back At Critics Who Question His Discovery
V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai was 14 years old when he developed the technology we now know as email. But despite having received “official recognition” of his creation by the U.S. Government, some still question whether he was the veritable founder…. The creation of email falls under the pretext of the “American dream,” Ayyadurai explains, and he feels that those who challenge him as the inventor are afraid of upward mobility and change…
Ayyadurai’s former colleague Robert Field explained the discrepancy and defended Ayyadurai in a blog on The Huffington Post. According to Field, “multi-billion dollar defense company” Raytheon BBN Technologies generated “their entire brand … based on claims of having ‘invented email,'” then unleashed a PR campaign to “discredit email’s origins” as well as Shiva’s claim to having invented it. Ayyadurai explained in a HuffPost Live interview recently that he thinks these allegations stem from people who are both economically and racially prejudiced. “The reality is this: in 1978, there was a 14-year-old boy and he was the first to create electronic office system. He called it email, a term that had never been used before, and then he went and got official recognition by the U.S. Government,” he told host Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani, referring to himself. Ayyadurai said his modest background prevented him from getting the recognition he deserved. “After that took place, you have a sense of disbelief among people that comes from not so much the technology issue, but there’s a lot of economic issues associated here,” he continued. “[The discovery] wasn’t done at MIT; it wasn’t done at the military; it wasn’t done at a big institution. It was done in Newark, NJ, one of the poorest cities in the United States. It was done by a dark-skinned immigrant kid, 14 years old.”
The creation of email falls under the pretext of the “American dream,” Ayyadurai explained, and he feels that those who challenge him as the inventor are afraid of upward mobility and change. “The narrative there is what changes and shocks certain people who want to control the narrative that innovation can only take place under their bastions,” he said. “The truth is that the American dream is really about [the fact that] innovation can take place anytime, by anybody.”