Who Really Invented Email?

I’ve always been fascinated with the origins of things and the stories behind inventions we take for granted such as email. Yes, email. Everyone uses it and yet no one really knows how it came to be. If you do rudimentary searches online as we all like to do, you will find some interesting search results that don’t seem to agree on who really invented email. I would like to share my unbiased investigative research into this matter and perhaps help answer this question once and for all.

Disclaimers and Transparency

Before we dive into this analysis, I wanted to get something important out of the way. First and foremost, I do not have any ulterior motive for writing this piece. I am merely someone who has spent over 20 years in the I.T. industry and over a decade as a tech journalist covering technology for some of the largest tech publications including Mashable.com, Gigaom.com and many others. I have always loved technology so this subject matter has always fascinated me. I also enjoy explaining complex technological matters so that the average non-technical person can understand things. I hope I am able to clarify this complicated topic.

Also, for the record in case it matters, I am not a member of either the democratic or republican parties. I know you are wondering what does politics have to do with a piece about technology but I assure you that it always plays a part in these hyper-political times. So, I assure you, dear reader, that this is going to be an unbiased objective piece based solely on the facts and body of evidence available today.

The B.E. (Before Email) Era

Let’s begin at the beginning. What did we use before email to communicate? Well, we won’t go as far back as cave drawings but instead let’s focus on the modern era — the 20th century shortly before the advent of email.

The modern office used interoffice memos to communicate. In short, letters on physical paper usually delivered in large envelopes as in the photo below.

The memos were usually stored in trays marked as IN or OUT (see image)

These memos were delivered via a massive system of tubes between floors, believe it or not kiddies. I think the only example we can see today that is remotely similar are the tubes used at bank drive throughs where we use tubes to send materials back and forth to tellers from our cars.

The memos were sent inside these tubes

These prehistoric method of communication proliferated for decades all over the world until email because the de facto standard albeit ever so slowly starting in the 1980’s until widespread adoption in the 1990’s.

Meet the Teenage inventor of email — V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai

In 1978 14 year-old V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai successfully filed for a copyright to protect his creation of a 50,000 lines of code for a program he called EMAIL. Back then, there was no way to trademark source code for software programs. The only existing form of protection was to copyright your work which is what this erudite young man did.

By 1980, Ayyadurai’s EMAIL, the program and its user manual were in wide use around the UMDNJ (University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) campus. On August 30, 1982, the United States government awarded Ayyadurai the first U.S. Copyright for “Email,” “Computer Program for Electronic Mail System” officially recognizing Ayyadurai as the inventor of email — — the system of interlocking parts designed to electronically emulate and expand the functionality of the interoffice, inter-organizational paper-based mail system.

As for trademarks for software, things changed in 1980 as the United States Copyright Act of 1976 was amended to include software inventions. This resulted in the United States Computer Software Act of 1980.

In 1983, Email was trademarked by CompuServe which was a popular online internet service before America Online. However, CompuServe abandoned the trademark in August 1984, most likely because of the prior arte of email dating back to Ayyadurai’s Copyright in 1982.

Here’s a CompuServe ad from January 1983 in BYTE magazine that promoted its communication system that resembled Email.

Email vs ARPANET, text messaging and SMS

Besides the CompuServe 1983 trademark, there have been some other claims to the invention of email. For example, the early workers of the ARPANET community, such as Mr. David Crocker, in the field of electronic messaging, admitted clearly that the ARPANET community had no intention to create a full-scale electronic version of the interoffice or inter-organizational paper-based mail system. This is expressed in the following two statements of Mr. Crocker, published in December of 1977, months before Ayyadurai began his work in inventing email.

“At this time, no attempt is being made to emulate a full-scale, inter-organizational mail system. p.4”. “The level of the MS project effort has also had a major effect upon the system’s design. To construct a fully-detailed and monolithic message processing environment requires a much larger effort than has been possible with MS. In addition, the fact that the system is intended for use in various organizational contexts and by users of differing expertise makes it almost impossible to build a system which responds to all users’ needs. p.7”

Controversy emerged in 2012 when V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai’s documents for the creation of Email were acquired by the Smithsonian and some people voiced disagreement on who created Email. One of the objections included Mr. Tom Van Vleck whose claims became suspicious when it was discovered that his documents were edited/changed after the Smithsonian acquired Ayyadurai’s Email documents. (see below)

The difference between Email and sending text messages

There have been supporters for Mr. Ray Tomlinson who introduced the use of the @ symbol for separating usernames from domains before 1978 but it is clear that he did not invent the entire interlocking system of email which is the full-scale emulation of the interoffice, inter-organizational paper-based mail system.

The use of the @ symbol by Tomlinson is the simple exchange of text messages between computers. This is a major distinction between an Email system and the ability to send a text message. Mr. Tomlinson made minor modifications to a pre-existing program called SNDMSG, which he did not write, in order to enable the exchange of simple text messages across computers.

ay Tomlinson first developed the TENEX operating system which included ARPANET network control program and telnet implementations. Before the implementation of the email system, Ray wrote a file transfer program called CPYNET to transfer files through the ARPANET network. Later he modified the same program to add users on the same computers which defined the first email system.

RFC 733 and RFC 561

There have also been claims that suggest RFC (Request For Comments) 733 and RFC 561 documented the groundwork specifications for an email system but careful examination of these notes prove these claims are inaccurate.

At best, these documents nothing more than meeting notes that asked users to provide ideas and comments notes after meetings. It did not include any of the critical components necessary for the development of an Email system.

Others Claim to the Crown of Email Inventor

There have been even other claims to the invention of email that have been debunked one by one after careful inspection. I would like to address the rest of them here.

MSG was at best a rudimentary text messaging client. It was a lightweight messaging system, designed to aid users of the TENEX operating system. It served its purpose well, but was crippled by a limited feature set, and was not email — — the system of interlocked parts intended to emulate the interoffice, interlocked paper-based mail system.

Another early messaging command called MAIL also was not a complete electronic system of interlocked parts emulating the interoffice, inter-organizational paper mail system. MAIL allowed a CTSS user to transmit a file, written in a third-party editor, and encoded in binary-decimal format (BCD), to other CTSS users.

The creator of MAIL admitted this fact: “The proposed uses [of MAIL],” wrote Tom Van Vleck, “were communication from ‘the system’ to users, informing them that files had been backed up, communication to the authors of commands with criticisms, and communication from command authors to the CTSS manual editor.”

DEC, Wang & IBM each had basic command line messaging systems in the early 1980’s but nothing resembling a full email platform like Dr. Shiva’s invention.

Laurel from Xerox Park in Palo Alto was a graphical frontend to the MS and SNDMSG commands. It did not have much of what we later got in Dr. Shiva’s email system.

Defenders of Dr. Shiva

There have been a whole series of respectable people who’ve come to the defense of V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai through the years. I won’t list them all but I will include one of them to get the gist of what they all seem to say.

“Email, upper case, lower case, any case, is the electronic version of the interoffice, inter-organizational mail system, the email we all experience today — and email was invented in 1978 by a 14-year-old working in Newark, NJ. The facts are indisputable.”

(Garling, 2012) Professor Noam Chomsky, MIT Institute Professor & Professor of Linguistics

Here’s another quote from Mr. Chomsky:

“What continues to be deplorable are the childish tantrums of industry insiders who now believe that by creating confusion on the case of ‘email,’ they can distract attention from the facts….Given the term email was not used prior to 1978, and there was no intention to emulate ‘…a full-scale, inter-organizational mail system,” as late as December 1977, there is no controversy here, except the one created by industry insiders, who have a vested interest.”

Professor Noam Chomsky, MIT Institute Professor & Professor of Linguistics

My Final Thoughts

Based on everything I discovered in my research it is very clear that Shiva Ayyadurai was the first person to register the creation of the system known as email. He registered the copyright because this was before software could be trademarked.

As for the claims that other inventors it is very clear that those services were for SMS and text messaging, not the entire system of email with inboxes, folders and address books.



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Writer. Born in Italy, raised in NJ. Work has appeared on @Mashable, @WebWorkerDaily, @Appolicious & elsewhere. Owner/Editor: @Dad_O_Matic