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
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.
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.
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.
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 InventorOfEmail.com 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.” ~
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.
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.