Inventing Email

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 Huffington Post recently published a string of blog posts reporting his claim. Huffpost retracted the articles a couple days ago.

People can’t help creating and using email services when they spend enough time talking to a computer. When I was a Boston University in ’74 and ’75, one kid wrote a chat program (“$msg”) and another wrote an email program. We all used it. Working on an RSX-11M system a couple years later, I wrote one myself using shell scripts. The Internet email we use today traces its history back to the early 1970s on the ARPANET. I worked with those people. I also spent time studying the early standards documents, notably RFC 561 from 1973, and RFC 733 from 1977.

I’m not sure when Shiva started publicizing his 1978 email work. Gizmodo wrote an exposé of Shiva’s claims in 2012. The article calls Shiva “the man who pretended to invent email.”

When Huffpost retracted the articles, they hinted that the articles were published automatically through one of their affiliated blogs. Here’s a headline from one of the posts:

Article about alleged email inventor

Within a few days, a whole series of articles popped up on Huffpost. There was the two-part history of email shown above, other articles on the topic, and an article about a conspiracy by Internet pioneers to hide the true history of email. If this were a cheap attempt at self-promotion, it would have all come from a single author, possibly a pseudonym for the claimant. Instead, the bylines showed a series of authors, including Shiva’s advisor from the 1987 project (now a medical center bigwig in New Jersey), an MIT faculty colleague, and one or two others. Aside from the inevitable “nice story” comments posted in response, there were several that called the story into question. Remarkably, several people with different bylines quickly jumped in to counter negative comments. It all seemed organized somehow.

Little remains of the original Huffpost articles today. They were all replaced with the following note:

The post that previously appeared in this space — part of a blogger-generated series on the history of email — is no longer available. Readers and media commentators alerted us to factual and sourcing issues in the series and, after an internal review, we removed it from the site.

What constitutes a true paper mail replacement
One argument supporting Shiva’s claim uses a 1977 quotation from Dave Crocker, a legitimate Internet email pioneer. To paraphrase, Crocker said that the online messaging systems didn’t try to replace existing paper systems. Shiva’s supporter argued that this statement proves the inadequacy of ARPANET email development. In fact, Crocker simply points out business realities before desktop computing.
In 1977, all keyboards in a typical company sat in front of secretaries (now called assistants), keypunch operators (if you don’t know, don’t ask), and a pool of people who did nothing but transcribe handwritten or recorded stuff onto typewritten paper. A handful of well-funded academic and research organizations had a crude form of desktop computing: multi-user computing from desktop ‘terminals.’ No one could afford to replace their paper systems with “personal computers” or “personal workstations” back then.

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