Lightbulb from email envelope

Who Really Invented Email? Three Origin Stories of the Inbox


Alexander Graham Bell gets credit for inventing the telephone. Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb. Or at least – those are the stories we hear and believe. But who is the inventor of email?

In many ways, email communication is just as important to our daily lives as the telegraph and telephone were once upon a time. But if you try to find an answer to the question “Who invented email?” you’ll find yourself entering a rabbit hole filled with controversy and intense debates. Trust us. We’ve been there.

We first entered that rabbit hole when Email on Acid looked to celebrate the 50th anniversary of email (or at least what many believe it to be). We wanted to explore email history. As we dug into it, however, we realized that the invention of email is harder to pin down than you might think.

There’s not one, not two, but at least three different stories about who invented email. Let’s start at what could be the very beginning.

Story One: Noel Morris and Tom Van Vleck

MIT computer engineers
Did Tom Van Vleck and Noel Morris invent email?

Errol Morris is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker known for documentaries like The Fog of War. He’s also published an opinion blog on the New York Times website. One day, a comment from a reader tipped him off to the possibility that his older brother invented email.

The comment was from Tom Van Vleck, someone Errol remembered as a friend and colleague of his late brother, Noel Morris. Both Tom and Noel were MIT graduates who worked together and shared a computer back in the 1960s. Remember, back then computers were the size of rooms and multiple users had to split their time using them.

Using his investigative filmmaking skills, Errol dug deep into his brother’s connections to what could very well be the beginnings of electronic communication. He published a personal five-part series on his NYT blog that covers everything he learned about his brother and the earliest days of what would become the email we know today.

But we’ll try to cut to the chase (as a filmmaker might say).

In 1965, Noel Morris and Tom Van Vleck noticed a memo that mentioned the idea of creating a mail command. The two looked into it and found no one had taken on the job yet. Apparently, people thought it would be a waste of time. But Noel and Tom saw the potential.

At the time, the program the two men built was implemented into MIT systems as a way to leave messages between those sharing computers. For example, you could let a colleague know their files had been backed up.

Because their command didn’t send messages between computers, there are those who discount this story of the invention of email. But Van Vleck has a different point of view. In an interview with Errol Morris, Van Vleck said that while he doesn’t think he and Noel were the only inventors of email – they played an influential role.

“I know that the e-mail that we invented was the ancestor of the e-mail for the next operating system, Multics, that we worked together on for many years. And that mail command was the ancestor of the mail command for many other systems, Unix, in particular. And so, it influenced all subsequent mail systems.”

Tom Van Vleck

Hear even more of the story when you check out an episode of the podcast Reply All: “Did Errol Morris’ Brother Invent Email?”

Story Two: Ray Tomlinson

Perhaps the most widely accepted story about who really invented email centers around another MIT graduate named Ray Tomlinson. He created an electronic messaging system for ARPANET (or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which was a precursor to the internet.

In 1971, Ray Tomlinson was working as an engineer for a defense contractor that was helping the U.S. government develop ARPANET. Tomlinson wanted an interesting project to tackle. 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.   

Ray Tomlinson email inventor
Did Ray Tomlinson invent email?

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.

Tomlinson 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

Of course, Tomlinson admitted that folks at ARPANET weren’t calling his program “email” yet. That term wouldn’t be coined for several years. Get more of his story on the invention of email in the video below.

Tomlinson was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012 and passed away in 2016. The obituaries that were written about his life all credit him with inventing email as we know it.

Story Three: Shiva Ayyadurai

The next chapter in our trio of tales about the invention of email involves a bright young student whose family immigrated to the U.S. from India. Shiva Ayyadurai was a teen tech prodigy who most likely gave email its name. Whether he’s the real inventor of email or not is the subject of a lot of controversy.

Ayyadurai is a colorful character who’s led an interesting life. Like the other potential inventors of email, he’s also an MIT graduate. In fact, he holds four degrees from MIT and also taught there for a time. Beyond that Ayyadurai founded the technology company Millennium Cybernetics in the 1990s, authored books on the email industry, and twice ran for U.S. Senate.

Shiva Ayyadurai inventor of email
Did V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai invent email?

Ayyadurai was once romantically linked to actress Fran Drescher (yes, The Nanny). He’s also become known for having controversial views on topics like election fraud and vaccinations. Most recently, he asked Elon Musk to make him the next CEO of Twitter.

But let’s put all that aside and get back to the invention of email…

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. He called it “EMAIL.” He would copyright the software in 1982.

Clashes over the Tomlinson and Ayyadurai stories erupted 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.

Today Ayyadurai owns the website and vehemently defends the title. According to him, there were some significant differences between his program and the versions that Tomlinson, Van Vleck, and Noel Morris created. Here’s what 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

Ayyadurai’s point is that the system he developed as a teenager more closely resembles what we use today. It was created to digitize and replace interoffice communications with inboxes, outboxes, address books, and attachments. Get more of Shiva Ayyadurai’s story in the video below.

More controversy over the invention of email

The fight over the title of inventor of email got quite heated over the years. Some people from the tech industry, including many connected to ARPANET, disputed the idea that Ayyadurai’s EMAIL program was really the beginning of the communication channel. 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 too. 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.

Who is the real inventor of email?

While the mystery surrounding the invention of email is intriguing, in the end, maybe it doesn’t really matter. Maybe we should just accept that all four of these people (and many others) played a role in pioneering a key form of communication technology.

The digital transformation that has taken 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.

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.

They say that “necessity is the mother of invention.” The truth is, as computers went mainstream, the world needed this kind of communication solution. If these pioneers hadn’t been the first ones to step up and solve the problem, someone else would have done it eventually.

The future of email has yet to be written. It’s the innovative software engineers, designers, and developers who hold the key to ensuring that email stays relevant and useful for decades to come. Here at Sinch Email on Acid, we’re just glad to be along for the ride.

Don’t guess, test

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Author: Kasey Steinbrinck

Kasey Steinbrinck is a Sr. Content Marketing Manager for Sinch Email, which includes the brands Email on Acid, InboxReady, Mailgun, and Mailjet. He understands how email and content work hand-in-hand to create a strong strategy. Kasey has also spent time working in traditional media, e-commerce marketing, and for a digital agency.

Author: Kasey Steinbrinck

Kasey Steinbrinck is a Sr. Content Marketing Manager for Sinch Email, which includes the brands Email on Acid, InboxReady, Mailgun, and Mailjet. He understands how email and content work hand-in-hand to create a strong strategy. Kasey has also spent time working in traditional media, e-commerce marketing, and for a digital agency.

23 thoughts on “Who Really Invented Email? Three Origin Stories of the Inbox”

  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. Beautifully explained Mr IT!!!
      The concept of the basic layout of a letter into its electronic form belongs to Shiva Ayyadurai. He has the certificate of the copyright registration and to this day this is what we use as electronic mail. Tomlinson’s claims are not valid. The only valid claim of his, is the use of the @symbol which has to do with the way the electronic addresses of individuals are typed.
      How despicable for a journalist to call a scientist “pseudoscientific quack” is beyond anyone’s imagination. Cancel culture to its purest form.

      “¨Οσα δε φτάνει η αλεπού (τα κάνει κρεμαστάρια)” is an expression that has its roots in a myth of Aesop. According to that myth, a fox was trying very hard to reach a branch with some grapes on it. After realizing it wasn’t able to get them, the fox said, “Never mind, the grapes were stale and sour anyway”.
      Ryan Young is the meanest fox out there.

      1. I agree with your evaluation of Ryan Young. Name calling is one of the lowest forms of communication.

    3. Ayyadurai is not given the due credit.His political afflictions are irrelevant.Don’t confuse fact with fiction

    4. Name calling. Great sign of maturity. There are those who create things and there are others who try to stay relevant by criticizing others

  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.

  3. What separates What Ray did from the telegraph? Digitalization and storage? It was still the domain of geeks, since most people preferred the telephone.
    Business had little use for it.
    What Shiva did was replace the inter-office communication that required the use of carbon copy typewriting labor – and the physical use of vacuum tubes or human messengers – to deliver those paper copies to the offices.
    He wrote a 50 thousand line program to let secretaries (not computer geeks) the ability to do all that at a workstation. The medical/dental college that hired him to do that, was able to throw out all that infrastructure.
    Multiply that savings around the world and you can see the quantum rise in efficiency.
    It was only later when the internet became more popular, that the @ symbol could be added and an email piggybacked onto a message that it came into widespread use. But the format for normal people to use it as email was developed by Shiva.
    You could say the ability to send old style mail digitally around the world was popularized by the @ symbol I guess. But todays text messaging doesn’t need that either.

    1. David Knight there were electronics communications in use before Shiva was born. Are you familiar with FORTRAN? Many lines consist of a single number. To quote a 50 thousand line program reeks of parroting the website he owns called who invented email or some such thing. Yes, he probably saved his company money but carbon copies were still used for everything well into the late 90s, to suggest otherwise is easily debunked. It sounds like you’ve bought into whatever he has to say

  4. You should articulate in your own words what you believe to be the basis of Ayyadurai’s claim. The fact that you don’t try to anywhere in the article unfortunately makes your blog seem about as phony as Ayyadurai.

    1. The idea here was not to publish what “I believe.” We’re just trying to tell an interesting story about the origins of email. That being said, the basis of Ayyadurai’s claim seems to be that he developed a system that was more akin to what we use today and that he was the one to name it “EMAIL.” Hopefully, that came through in the content! If not – thanks for reading anyway.

      The fact that this article upsets people on both sides of the argument is a pretty good sign that we’ve made our point — the story of email’s invention is enshrouded in controversy, mystery, and apparently bitterness too.

  5. We use Jon Postels SMTP protocol to send emails. We use Ray Tomlinsons use of the @ symbol to specify destination and he did send the first “peer to peer’ message. However, he was not the first to send an Electronic Message, “Symantecs and points of view”. Around the world we actually use Shivas model. or should I saw CERL/IBMs Domino?. From server to database, from client to method, cc/bcc/to etc. Had Tomlinson never used the @ symbol, would he still be considered the father of email considering Shiva actually copywrote “EMAIL”? Is there a difference between Electronic Message vs Electronic MAIL? It looks more like this. Someone liked Shivas email model, and used the protocol SMTP to make money from it and used the @ symbol to specify who the message would go to. So who independently wrote his own messaging protocol, used a database to store sent emails, wrote a client interface and copywrote the platform “EMAIL”? Did someone steel someones email gui? IBM from Shiva and MS from IBM? There is no father of email! There is the father of the use of the @ symbol, there is a father of the creation of SMTP, and a father of the first “E-mail OFFICE system”. As far as a quack as some have stated. It would have to be that the truest of idiots would insult someone by calling a person with 4 MIT degrees in different fields, BS and PHDs, a quack.
    If curiosity serves anyone, I’m an Email Messaging Architect with a love for History. Again, the key here is, what constitutes the difference between an E-Mail vs a Electronic Message…or is one the other?

  6. I don’t really care who invented email. But, this guy has completely discredited himself. Also, anyone who disses Bobby Kennedy can go and jump in the lake. This guy hasn’t got the credibility or integrity in his whole body, that Kennedy has in one atom of his being.

  7. Kasey,
    Your story sadly omits key details that confirms that Ray Invented email . Ray didn’t work for Raytheon , He worked for BBN (Bolt Beranek & Newman) which is ASN #1 and built the first IMP CIrca 1968 and then connected them to first nodes that created ARPA . In 1971 the first email message was sent over ARPANET by tomlinson,He developed a software called SNDMSG and the first File Transfer Protocol called CPYNET which would send a electronic message over the ARPAnet .
    BBN Developed the first Internetworking Router in 1975 and the network expanded including those using Ray programs to send email to each other and the governement .

  8. I was drawn to this story by this interview with Dr.Ayyadurai here: I call him by his right title as it seems he earned it and was smart enough to invent email. Let’s get another thing clear. Indians have been well-represented in the world of inventions. He did not mention Karmarkar’s algorithm in his video, nor Bhose in radio. However, I suggest that the scientific community arrange a conference to sort it out. It is a development monumental enough. You might find out that more than one person must get the credit. This was the case with the argument over who discovered the calculus. In the end it was discovered that both Liebnitz and Newton were working on it simultaneously.

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