debate over invention of email

Exploring the Controversy: Who Really Invented Email?

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

Email on Acid is celebrating the 50th anniversary with an upcoming webinar on the past, present, and future of email. But as it turns out, there are some questions and controversy surrounding the true “inventor of email.” 

A widely accepted story of email’s origins 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 was the one who invented email as a teen tech prodigy 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 ARPANET story 

ARPANET (or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was a U.S. Defense Department program that’s credited with being the foundation of the modern internet. It started as a network of connected computers and later expanded, thanks in part to support from Vice President Al Gore who promoted legislation that helped fund ARPANET. 

In 1971, Ray Tomlinson was hired to help develop 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 regarding how people were using computers to communicate.  

According to Tomlinson, things were pretty archaic at the time. Messages were sent to numbered mailboxes where they were printed out and paper was delivered to physical inboxes. Plus, you could only send messages to people using 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 onto paper — formatting issues, where the formfeeds went, what tab meant, all that sort of stuff. I said that’s too complicated: we just want to send messages to people.”

~ Ray Tomlinson 

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

Tomlinson says it took him more than two decades to grasp the impact of the innovation. 

“The realization that this had become a big thing didn’t really come until somebody asked the question, just before the 25th anniversary of the ARPANET, ‘Where did email come from?’ Several people remembered that I had written this program way back when and called me; I said, yeah, I did that …” 

~ Ray Tomlinson 

Get more of Tomlinson’s story in the video below: 

Of course, Tomlinson admitted that folks at ARPANET weren’t calling his program “email” yet. That term wouldn’t be coined for several years, and a bright young student whose family immigrated to the U.S. from India when he was young may have had something to do with it. 

The Ayyadurai story 

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

Ayyadurai also says he is the real inventor of email, and he’s got 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 erupt until 30 years later when major publications started releasing articles that gave Ayyadurai the credit for inventing email. Time magazine published a Techland interview in 2011, which was followed by a 2012 article in the Washington Post. The Smithsonian seemed to validate Ayyadurai’s claims after the museum received documentation of his “EMAIL” 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 Time

“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?” 

~ V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai

Get more of Ayyadurai’s story in this interview with Mo Rocca for the TV show Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation

Who invented email? The debate continues 

After getting coverage in Time and The Washington Post, people from the tech industry, including many connected to ARPANET, disputed 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 Post and the Smithsonian. 

While it was initially stated that Ayyadurai’s EMAIL program was the first to use the bcc, cc, to, and from fields, ARPANET members argued against that as well. Tomlinson told Gizmodo that his 1971 solution included the fields as well. Gizmodo’s Sam Biddle wrote: 

“… laying claim to the name of a product that’s the generic term for a universal technology gives you acres of weasel room. But creating a type of airplane named 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 reportedly bankrolled. 

While Tomlinson’s invention story was accepted by many in the tech world, Ayyadurai has some high-profile supporters as well. Although MIT distanced itself from Ayyadurai after the controversy, renowned former MIT professor Noam Chomsky made statements backing the 1978 date, which Ayyadurai released to the press in 2012

 
“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.”

~ Noam Chomsky 

Over the years, Ayyadurai expressed a belief that 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 entitled “Correction the Inventor of Email is Still Alive”, in which he stated: 

“I have no doubt that my origin and ethnicity have strongly influenced controversy over my invention of email. This has also influenced the withholding of recognition for that invention, and for personal and racist attacks directed against me.  

~ V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai

One day after Tomlinson died; Ayyadurai also took to Twitter to again stake his claim to the title. 

Should we let go of the past? 

The “invention of email story” that you choose to accept may depend on what resonates more with you. Is it the story of the mild-mannered, Steve-Wozniak-like engineer who worked humbly 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 moment in history, the last thing we need is another topic that divides us. 

Maybe it’s better to accept both stories as valid in their own right. The digital transformation that took place over the last 50 years is truly incredible. Email has become a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives, and despite braggadocious claims from companies like Slack, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. 

Both Tomlinson and Ayyadurai set out to solve the same problem, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they both came up with similar solutions at around the same time that were based on existing communication processes. It’s fair to say that both men were pioneers in the email industry, and both of them deserve recognition for their contributions.  

Who did it first? Who did it best? Does it really matter at this point? 

Email isn’t the only innovation with unclear origins. There are also disputes over who really invented the electric lightbulb, the telephone, and even Michael Jackson’s moonwalk

The past and future of email

Sometimes, the most revolutionary ideas aren’t recognized as being world-changing 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 a intriguing webinar with our friends from emfluence

Watch the recording of “The Future of Email Part 1: Lessons Learned from 50 Years.” Email on Acid’s own Betsy Grondy joins Women of Email cofounder and president Jen Capstraw for an eye-opening discussion about email’s history and where we’re heading next. 

Don’t guess, test

Email clients are constantly changing, which is why it’s important to test your email every time; what worked yesterday might not work today. Email on Acid offers unlimited email testing on more than 90 clients and devices, so you can make sure your email looks good before it hits the inbox. Want to see for yourself? Take advantage of our free, seven-day trial.

Test Today

Author: Kasey Steinbrinck

Kasey Steinbrinck is Email on Acid's content marketing manager. He's created lead-generating digital marketing plans for a wide variety of organizations and understands how valuable content fuels a powerful email strategy. Kasey lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, (Go Packers) with his wife and three out-of-control boys.

Author: Kasey Steinbrinck

Kasey Steinbrinck is Email on Acid's content marketing manager. He's created lead-generating digital marketing plans for a wide variety of organizations and understands how valuable content fuels a powerful email strategy. Kasey lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, (Go Packers) with his wife and three out-of-control boys.

8 thoughts on “Exploring the Controversy: Who Really Invented Email?”

  1. Mr. Ayyadurai is a pseudoscientific quack who has zero factual basis to label himself the “inventor of email.” You do everybody a disservice by providing a platform for his Trumpian claims.

    1. Thanks for your input, Ryan. The point of this article was simply to provide the details of the ongoing debate — not to take sides. We’re just documenting what others have said, and everyone is free to have their own opinion. None of the “Trumpian” claims were mentioned in this article as that was not the focus.

      1. I would encourage anyone curious about the history of email to spend thirty seconds investigating Dr. Ayyadurai’s background–the press retractions, the failed libel suits, the wild conspiracy theories. To gloss over these pertinent details seems to me to be negligence at best, and bothsidesism at worst.

        One thing I will agree with you on: We are all entitled to our own opinions.

        1. Yeah, it does get pretty strange. But please keep in mind, this is an email marketing blog, not the NY Times or Washington Post or even Wired or Tech Crunch. Personally, the Tomlinson story seems way more legit to me (and to most). That being said, lots of innovative people (past and current) hold controversial views: Edison, Ford, Musk, etc. Not that I’m comparing Ayyadurai to any of them.

          1. But you are operating a platform with a degree of reputation. You even come up as one of the top search results on the subject. Such a position comes with a responsibility. Mr. Ayyadurai has such a bizarre, contradictory, and – frankly -opportunistic history, it does a disservice to the maintenance of technological history to hold him up on the same pedestal.

          2. So – if you check out our Email History Timeline, you’ll see we clearly label Tomlinson as email’s inventor. However, wouldn’t you also say this controversy is an interesting part of email history?

  2. Mr. Kasey Steinbrinck, you have done a great job presenting both sides of the coin. Please ignore the ones who are convinced on what they believe in and unwilling to even give a benefit of doubt to Mr. Ayyadurai. I’m not saying this guy is the inventor. But, his credentials and projects undertaken during 1974 (irrespective of his beliefs and what he is doing today) does at least support his contribution to the history of email invention.

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