The death of Ray Tomlinson, also known as the ‘inventor of email’, last month brought to the forefront once again the long running efforts of Mumbai born Dr. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai to be recognised as the inventor of email. In this post, our Spicy IP Fellowship applicant, Inika Charles discusses the Ayyadurai email dispute. Readers can also read about another similar controversy involving Marconi and JC Bose which we had blogged about earlier here.
On March 6th, 2016, computer engineer, Ray Tomlinson passed away. Widely credited as the Inventor of Email, Tomlinson’s contribution to the development of the electronic mail system has been subject to heated debate since his passing. A few days after his death, news reports started to popularize the story of Dr. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai – and his claim as the true inventor of email. To attempt to form our own reasoned opinions of this controversy – we need to deal with a few fundamental questions – how email developed? What was Tomlinson’s and Ayyadurai’s contribution to the email system? And finally, after analysing the facts as they are, did Shiva Ayyadurai really invent the email?
MIT’s Compatible Time Sharing System, dates back to 1961 and is perhaps the first well documented electronic mail system. Multiple users could log into a centralised system from remote, dial up terminals, to store information on a central disk. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that sending messages to users on different servers, or systems was possible – ARPANET, otherwise known as the predecessor to the internet, was subsequently developed by Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN). Revolutionary at the time, ARPANET provided for internetworking and interconnectivity between systems.
In 1971, Ray Tomlinson, employed by BBN at the time, adapted the SNDMSG program (developed by the University of California, Berkeley) to ARPANET, which resulted in the ability to transmit messages between different computers, on different servers. Notably, he suggested the use of the ‘@’ symbol as a means to connect the intended recipient of the message, with the server that the user was on – something which has continued to this day.
For those of you not already familiar with Ayyadurai, (we have blogged about him before, albeit in a different controversy here) he is an Indian origin, American scientist. He holds four degrees from MIT, and was a lecturer at the university. In 1978, Ayyadurai, a 14-year-old at the time, developed a system, that, and as quoted from his website – “replicated the features of the interoffice, inter-organisational paper mail system.” Ayyadurai was a research fellow at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), where he was asked to convert the existing inter-office communication system from paper to electronic form. To further elaborate, the system in place consisted of memos that consisted of labels to be filled in by hand. They included: “To” “From” “Subject” “Cc” “Bcc” “Body” “Attachments” “Forward” “Reply”. These filled in memos were then sent on to the desired recipient. At the time, each user had physical “Inbox” “Outbox” and “Drafts” folders for these memos to be sorted into.
Ayyadurai took this physical memo delivery system, and converted it into a paperless, electronic format, through which memos could be sent across the University – a user interface never seen before. He named this program ‘EMAIL’ and was granted copyright protection for it in 1982 by the United States Copyright Office. ‘EMAIL’ was recognised by the Westinghouse Science Talent Search Honors Group, by the Smithsonian, as well as highlighted by MIT as achievements by one of four of their incoming students.
As delved into by Anuj Srivas in his post for The Wire, the context in which their inventions occurred is perhaps essential. He points out that the credit for an invention is often dependent on the environment in which it occurred. To contrast Tomlinson’s efforts, made working for the company that developed the predecessor of the internet, with Ayyadurai’s, the work of a 14-year-old research fellow at UMDNJ, would perhaps be unfair. Nevertheless, it is an essential part of the fight of recognition that Ayyadurai has been putting up. When asked by Wired as to why he was sharing his story, and whether he expected monetary benefit, he was categorical in stating that his intention was not to get the name or the money, but simply to share the story, as an inspiring message – that even something as grand as email could be created under the right creations.
Did Shiva Ayyadurai invent email?
Email is not made up of a single component. It has grown over time, with the contribution of various people, at different points of time. Is it possible, as Thomas Haigh observes, that the invention of email is a collective accomplishment, and that no single inventor can be identified? Comparing the inventions of both Tomlinson and Ayyadurai further this point: While Tomlinson’s innovation had much to do with transmission protocols, Ayyadurai’s claim is of the user interface of today’s email, and how he was the first to create a comprehensive system of electronic mail, offering the bundle of features that the original, inter office mail systems were based on. Very importantly, and as pointed out by Thomas Haigh, Ayyadurai’s ‘EMAIL’ system was suited for small local networks as the one it was created in, and not fit for global usage, while Tomlinson’s work has clearly been implemented in that regard.
Invention and Attribution
This brings up interesting questions of invention and attribution, a controversy so embedded in history that it deserves a Wikipedia page. While many credit Alexander Graham Bell for the invention of the telephone, the truth is that its history is fraught with claims and counterclaims for the patent. The invention of calculus too, is disputed, with Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both claiming rights over it. Readers may recall the J.C Bose – Marconi dispute, where it was claimed that the wireless receiver was not invented by Guglielmo Marconi, but by Jagadish Chandra Bose, a controversy with striking resemblance to this one.
Last month, the Naresuan University in Thailand announced that their research team had developed watertight and degradable food bowls from leaves. While this may seem revolutionary in Thailand, they have been in use for years in India. Should a patent be filed, it would bring up similar interesting questions.
Shiva Ayyadurai is the only person to have claimed the title of the ‘Inventor of Email”. Whether it is on social media, or in a professional capacity – it is how he identifies himself. His website links to one dedicated solely to popularise his claim – www.inventorofemail.com. Here, he proceeds to go into detail about his claim and provides documented proof of the recognition that ‘EMAIL’ received. Something that Ayyadurai is particularly aggressive about, is that perhaps this disregard of his invention was done on the basis of race. His posts on Twitter are evidence of it: “I’m the low-caste, dark-skinned, Indian, who DID invent #email..” was his post soon after Tomlinson’s death. He did not react well to Gmail’s tribute, calling the fact that Tomlinson invented email a ‘racist lie”.
So, did Shiva Ayyadurai invent the email? This can be differentiated from the usual patent/copyright infringement cases, as it is not their novelty, or originality that is in dispute, but which one of their respective intentions actually do make up ‘email’. What it boils down to, is whether a single inventor may be named at all. Email, as we know it, would not exist without Tomlinson’s transmission protocol, but the importance of Ayyadurai’s user interface cannot be discounted either. Does the copyright of the electronic conversion of an already existing system entitle Ayyadurai to the recognition he wants? And most of all, would giving Ayyadurai this recognition take away from Tomlinson’s achievements? As Anuj Srivas puts it – it isn’t simple, and you’re probably missing the point.
Image from here