Email Credit

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Who invented email? In an extreme example of a kid pretending that nothing ever happened before them, a Shiva Ayyadurai claimed to be the inventor of email for several years, convincing a fair number of people, until the story collapsed when it became widely known in 2012.

As a high school kid in 1978, many years after email was in wide use, Ayyadurai wrote about 50K lines of FORTRAN to emulate an inter-office mail system, naming his program EMAIL. In 1982, he sent his program to the US Copyright Office, and entered the letters “EMAIL” in the Title box on the form. He then claimed this meant time magically reversed, and he had retroactively invented the real email years before.

In the interests of truth and crediting those that actually did the work, the key facts of this case are summarized below for researchers, media, and any other interested parties:

  • History. The true story of how email was invented is described on the Email History page, including review from several of the participants. It started in the 1960’s, with the ‘@’ sign added in 1971, then improved over many years by many people, and had no involvement by Ayyadurai at any time, a toddler when it all began.
  • Documentation. The Internet reference A Mail Box Protocol was also published in 1971, describing some of the technical details of email, seven years before Ayyadurai’s work. The widely referenced document RFC 733 was published in 1977, just before Ayyadurai started his work, showing the rich technology that already existed, including all the email headers he later claimed to have invented.
  • Smithsonian. The story fell apart after the Smithsonian somehow ended up acquiring some of Ayyadurai’s printouts on 2012-02-16, and one week later had to issue a clarification, stating:
  • The Smithsonian … collected a selection of materials from Shiva Ayyadurai of MIT. In accepting these objects, the museum did not claim that Ayyadurai was “the inventor of email” … Exchanging messages through computer systems, what most people call “email,”‘ predates the work of Ayyadurai.

  • Washington Post. Also had to issue a correction, stating:
  • A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai as the inventor of electronic messaging. This version has been corrected. The previous, online version of this story also incorrectly cited Ayyadurai’s invention as containing, “The lines of code that produced the first ‘bcc,’ ‘cc, ‘to’ and ‘from’ fields.” These features were outlined in earlier documentation separate from Ayyadurai’s work.

  • MIT. The same week, on 2012-02-21, corrected both his title and claims, stating:

    A brief published on Jan. 11 incorrectly titled Shiva Ayyaduri and credits him with the first copyright to email. He is a faculty lecturer. Also, while he holds a copyright from 1982 titled “EMAIL,” Ayyaduri is not the inventor of email, which began in the 1960s.

    And his Wikipedia page notes that:

After the above controversy unfolded, MIT disassociated itself from Ayyadurai’s EMAIL Lab and funding was dropped. MIT also revoked Ayyadurai’s contract to lecture at the bioengineering department.

Many people helped build email, and the Internet itself, who will never receive public credit. All the more reason that credit not be given, or taken, incorrectly when it is known.