Every time people have congregated on interactive computer terminals, someone has put together chat and email systems. The systems we use today are based on “RFCs” – informal specifications developed by a community we now think of as “the Internet technical community.” In other words, no one person invented email. It arose from teamwork and cooperation.
[Update: Here’s a link to an article about Ray Tomlinson, who probably constructed the computer-to-computer email system, using the ARPANET. He pulled together memo headers like To:, From:, and Date: into an email format and then chose the “@” sign to separate a user’s personal ID from their mail host’s name.]
But according to the friends and publicists for VA Shiva Ayyadurai, the community story is wrong. Shiva actually created the whole thing himself in 1978, as documented by many web sites with names like www.inventorofemail.com. Huffington Post recently published a string of blog posts reporting his claim. Huffpost retracted the articles a couple days ago.