Home Business IT Business Telecommunications Noam Chomsky weighs into 'who invented email?' controversy

In April this year Ray Tomlinson was named one of the inaugural 'Pioneer' members of the Internet Society's new 'Hall of Fame' for "developing Arpanet's first application for network email," but credit for inventing email, in 1978 is being claimed by VA Shiva Ayyadurai who was just 14 at the time. And he is being backed up by no lesser luminary than renowned academic Noam Chomsky.

Tomlinson's employer, BBN, said on the occasion of his entry into the Hall of Fame "In 1971, Tomlinson developed Arpanet's first application for network email...allowing messages to be sent to users on other computers. He chose the @ sign to separate local from global emails in the mailing address. Person-to-person network email was born and user@host became the standard for email addresses."

Ayyadurai, however, maintains that he invented email and he has created a comprehensive web site  in support of his claim. On it he has published a statement from Chomsky in which Chomsky says: "Email was invented in 1978 by [Ayyadurai] a 14-year-old working in Newark, NJ. The facts are indisputable." And Chomsky dismisses as "deplorable" the "childish tantrums of industry insiders who now believe that by creating confusion on the case of 'email', they can distract attention from the facts."

The controversy erupted after the Smithsonian Institute in February this year announced the acquisition of Ayyadurai's material relating to the project. This lead to an article in the Washington Post headed "VA Shiva Ayyadurai: Inventor of e-mail honoured by Smithsonian." (That article has since been amended and only the amended version is available)

The article provoked a storm of controversy. There was a blog posting from the Washington Post's ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, quickly by a mea culpa from Paxton in which he confessed that his initial response had been "dismissive, snarky and wrongheaded, and had factual errors too."


The Smithsonian issued a statement saying "In accepting these objects, the museum did not claim that Ayyadurai was 'the inventor of email' as some press accounts have alleged. Exchanging messages through computer systems, what most people call 'email,' predates the work of Ayyadurai. However, the museum found that Ayyadurai's materials served as signposts to several stories about the American experience."

Of Ayyadurai's achievements it said: "Many innovations are conceived independently in different settings. Historians who have documented the early history of electronic messaging have largely focused on the use of large networked computers, especially those linked to the ARPANET in the early 1970s.

"Ayyadurai's story reveals a contrasting approach, focusing on communicating via linked computer terminals in an ordinary office situation. The system was localised, linking only three campuses rather than multiple large institutions. It was a small enterprise, rather than a big enterprise story.

Ayyadurai was clearly not happy with this state of affairs and launched the web site in which his claims are set out at length, with much supporting documentation including the statement from Chomsky and one from Dr Leslie P Michelson, Ayyadurai's supervisor in 1978 and now director of the High Performance Computing Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

On the site Ayyadurai states: "I created a computer program called EMAIL. I solely wrote the program, which consisted of nearly 50,000 lines of original code. EMAIL was the first of its kind -- a fully integrated, database-driven, electronic translation of the interoffice paper mail system derived from the ordinary office situation.

"It provided the electronic equivalents and features of mail receipt and transmission including: the inbox, outbox, drafts, address book, carbon copies, registered mail, ability to forward, broadcast along with a host of other features that users take for granted in Web-based email programs such as Gmail and Hotmail. I was the first to design, implement, test and deploy these features as a full-scale emulation of the interoffice inter-organizational mail system. This was and is email as we know it today."


To date the site's feedback facility has attracted few comments, the most substantial being totally dismissive of Ayyadurai's claims.

"I'm sorry, but it is VERY clear that the only claim you seem to be able to make about 'E-MAIL' is the first use of it as a term," it says.

"You don't have to look at very many RFCs to find a clear history of the technical roots of UNIX mail going back to 1971: 1971 - RFC 196, 'Mail Box Protocol'; 1973 - RFC 561, 'Standardizing Network Mail Headers'; 1975 - RFC 680, 'Network Transmission Protocol'; 1977 - RFC 733, Standard for the Format of ARPA Network Text Messages'.

"That last one is particularly important, as it brings pretty much everything together into a robust standard that is the basis for a comprehensive mail system. It is, in fact, the basis of the 'sendmail' system at the very heart of Internet e-mail. These are simply the facts. This whole 'inventor of e-mail' site is basically misdirection and an attempt to take credit for the work of many, many others."

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Stuart Corner


Tracking the telecoms industry since 1989, Stuart has been awarded Journalist Of The Year by the Australian Telecommunications Users Group (twice) and by the Service Providers Action Network. In 2010 he received the 'Kester' lifetime achievement award in the Consensus IT Writers Awards and was made a Lifetime Member of the Telecommunications Society of Australia. He was born in the UK, came to Australia in 1980 and has been here ever since.






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