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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 27, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    The mysterious invention of email

    Davin O'Dwyer

    Who invented email? You might think it was a pretty basic question, but a recent fiasco suggest that it’s a lot more complicated than one might think. It all started with the Smithsonian museum’s acquisition  of “tapes, documentation, copyrights, and over 50,000 lines of code” from a New Jersey programmer called VA Shiva Ayyadurai, relating to an early messaging system he designed. Coverage of the acquisition, such as this Washington Post article, unambiguously called Ayyadurai the inventor of email.
    But it seems that Ayyadurai’s claim is, well, contentious, to say the least. As soon as news of the Smithsonian’s purchase [See Thomas Haigh's comment below, it was a donation rather than a purchase] became public, a chorus of internet historians began to object, insisting that Ayyadurai didn’t, in fact, invent email.
    Ayyadurai’s claim rests on the fact that he developed a messaging program back in 1978, when he was only 14. By 1982, he had managed to copyright the word “email”. That’s not the same as inventing the technology, needless to say.
    The truth is that it’s very difficult to determine who invented email – it’s just words being sent over a network after all. There was some consensus that the first such communication took place in the early days of Arpanet, where a programmer by the name of Ray Tomlinson developed a messaging protocol in 1971 – he describes that process on his suitably retro-looking website.
    The brouhaha illustrates how our assumptions about the process of invention are pretty outdated – the notion of sole inventors toiling away on breakthroughs just isn’t applicable any more. With many technologies, there can be nothing so cut and dried as a single “author” – it’s an incremental process of improvement, and Tomlinson, for instance, spreads the credit. Tim Berners Lee is another prominent example, and even he doesn’t claim that he invented the worldwide web singlehandedly in a vacuum. We like the narrative purity of thinking that certain people are responsible for certain things, but it’s more than a little simplistic to think that’s how the process of invention happens.
    In a statement clarifying the motives behind the acquisition, the Smithsonian acknowledged that reality: “Many innovations are conceived independently in different settings.” But there can only be so much independence in these areas – standing on the shoulders of giants, or at least other programmers, is an inherently dependent process. Perhaps the answer to the question “Who invented email?” isn’t, ultimately, a person, but a process.
    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Suppose if you’re to take your definition of words sent over a network, or if you like: representations of language sent over a series of interlinked nodes; and bearing in mind the ‘e-’ in ‘e-mail’, you’d have to credit Samuel Morse as the inventor. And all those far far lesser known folks upon whose work in various fields such as electro-magnetism he built his patented idea upon.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      FIrst to the patent office after all. Mr Morse remarked he had to spend some time fighting off ”pirates” i.e. those whose work he appropriated or at least used to build his invention. Perhaps he misspelled and meant to write not pirates but ”prior arts”. I doubt it thought.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      So you’re probably right in saying that invention, of email and indeed all research leading to a new, useful technology, is a process. When it’s steamship time it’s steamship time and every technological discovery seems to have occurred in several places and through divers people roughly around the same time. The one who gets remembered is the one who files the first successful patent and by so doing converts ‘research’ and ‘invention’ into ‘development’ and ‘improvement. That’s how we convert the first fruits of genius into the work of the tinsmith.

    • Thomas Haigh says:

      You can’t copyright a word! See http://www.sigcis.org/node/321 and http://www.sigcis.org/node/325 for a debunking of the WP story by a historian (me). It’s hard to credit one person with the invention of email, but it’s easy to say who didn’t invent it. There’s really no mystery here — Ayyadurai didn’t invent email. Another correction — it was a donation to the Smithsonian, not a purchase.

    • Thanks for those links, Thomas, and the clarification on the donation to the Smithsonian. Your dismantling of WP piece seems to be the definitive take on the issue, cheers.

    • Chris Carpenter says:

      I remember ‘email’. A fellow Ph.D student asked me, ‘have you got your email yet’ to which I replied, ‘my what?’ Ah yes kapk4@sussex.ac.uk was my first email address I ever had and I read it using this antiquated program called ‘ELM’ which had not carriage return thus requiring some pretty careful typing.

      My scariest thought at the moment is that my now 2 year old son will ask me in 10 years time, ‘Dad, did you write letters, with a pen and paper’ all of which will be done via some form of telepathy.


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