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The brouhaha illustrates how our assumptions about the process of invention are pretty outdated – the notion of sole inventors toiling away on breakthroughs just isn’t applicable any more.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.