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Corruption, Lies And Death Threats: The Man Who Pretended To Invent Email

Shiva Ayyadurai, pictured above, is a shimmering intellectual. He holds four degrees from MIT (where he lectures), numerous patents, honours and awards. He also says he invented email, and there’s a global conspiracy against him. Guess which one of these statements is true.

In 1978, a precocious 14-year-old from New Jersey invented email. You can see him doing it in the photo at the top right of your screen — the kid glued to his monitor. In that picture, he’s busy showing off his creation — a way for office staff to message each other via computer. As he’s happy to gab to the Washington Post, which recently ran a profile of him, Ayyadurai was a teen wonder who invented the electronic messaging system with which we all communicate, back in 1978. Ayyadurai’s collection of “historical documents” is now to be interred at the Smithsonian, the Post reported, laid gloriously on the pillar of American history alongside artefacts of Occidental Civilization such as Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet, Thomas Jefferson’s Bible and a 1903 Winton, “the first car driven across the United States”. Ayyadurai is about to become more than just a gifted programmer and Professional Smart Man, but a historical figure. All of this leading up to a plum book deal with Norton, proclaiming his place in history as the upstart inventor of email itself.

But why have you never heard of him? Probably because there’s precious little evidence that Ayyadurai came remotely close to inventing email, beyond a few misleading childhood documents and a US Copyright form of dubious weight. This was enough to convince the Washington Post and Smithsonian? Before you could even finish the Post’s ode, Emi Kolawole, the reporter behind the piece, issued a stumbling correction:

A number of readers have accurately pointed out that electronic messaging predates V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai’s work in 1978. However, Ayyadurai holds the copyright to the computer program called “email”, establishing him as the creator of the “computer program for [an] electronic mail system” with that name, according to the US Copyright Office.

Well, that’s a rather different claim to fame entirely, isn’t it? After we posted incredulously, Ayyadurai’s PR rep was quick to rally us toward his cause — and the case was urgent. Not only was Ayyadurai desperate to set the record straight, but there was a tale of globalisation and woe that explained the detractors. Ayyadurai wasn’t being accused of lying about inventing email because hadn’t invented it; he was the victim of international character association. This goes all the way to the top.

In 2009, Ayyadurai worked for the Indian government, helping to run CSIR, a national R&D incubator tasked with finding homegrown patents and turning them into national high tech moneymakers. According to Ayyadurai, the centre, with its billions of dollars to spend, was as corrupt as you’d imagine an R&D incubator in a developing country would be. Dissent was verboten, patents were plagiarised, and the few ideas of worth were rounded up laid fallow. When someone tried to speak up, they were canned. Meanwhile, plush villas, fat salaries and state-provided cars were doled out to scientists within the organisation on the dime of the Indian people.

Ayyadurai couldn’t sit idly by while this happened. He admonished his management in a letter he circulated within CSIR, calling for freedom of speech among colleagues. The Indian government clamped down immediately: He was banned from further communiques, promptly fired, evicted from his government housing, and urged to flee the country, lest his life and family be harmed. Phone calls of warning and threat were persistent, he says.

So Ayyadurai did flee, returning to MIT, where he’s generally described by his colleagues as a nut and fraud — the terms “asshole” and “loon” were tossed around freely by professors who were happy to talk about their coworker but prefer to remain anonymous. “Don’t know him, but [he] didn’t invent email. If he claims to have done so he’s a dick,” said one MIT brain.

Ayyadurai is convinced the Indian government isn’t through with him. He claims that it hired a team of “bloggers” and PR hatchet men to smear him across the internet. Target number one? His claim to be the father of email.

On the phone, Ayyadurai comes off as kind, a man of nervous tact. But it also absolutely feels like trying to sell you something that’s just not sticking — a sort of mainframe Willy Loman. At publications he’s duped into letting him opine unfettered, he’s email’s inventor, through and through. He also owns dozens of immodest domains to that point — InventorOfEmail.com, DrEmail.com, EmailInventor.com — you get the point. No? Well Ayyadura has literally 100 more sites (103 in total) dedicated to making sure you do.

But press Ayyadurai, and he gets desperate, as his entire faux-fame rests upon semantic tricks, falsehoods and a misinformation campaign.

Shiva Ayyadurai didn’t invent email — he created “EMAIL”, an electronic mail system implemented at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark, New Jersey. It’s doubtful he realised it as a little teen, but laying claim to the name of a product that’s the generic term for a universal technology gives you acres of weasel room. But creating a type of aeroplane named aeroplane doesn’t make you Wilbur Wright.

The actual pioneers of email were breaking new ground more than a decade before Ayyadurai concocted his dental memo system. Electronic mail predates Ayyadurai’s ability to spell, let alone code. Ray Tomlinson is best known for having sent the first text letter between two computers on ARPANET in ’71 — y’know, an email. He also picked out the @ sign. A modest career. And despite Ayyadurai’s insistence that, at the very least, he was the first to make use of the To/From/CC/BCC/etc fields we still use in Gmail today, this too is a personal fantasy. Tomlinson, who began working on early inter-computer messaging when Ayyadurai was a year old, explained to us how he became well-versed with these linchpins of modern email years before Ayyadurai drew them up on his own:

[We] had most of the headers needed to deliver the message (to:, cc:, etc) as well as identifying the sender (from:) and when the message was sent (date:) and what the message was about. I chose the Latin word “re” meaning “about” for this. This apparently too obscure and was replaced with “subject:”. However, “re:” is still use in the subject field to refer to the subject of the message to which the message is a reply. RFC 561 documents the headers as of 1973. Before that the standard was de facto. You could include any header you wanted in a message, but you had better use to:, cc:, etc. if you wanted the receiving program to understand.

These email underpinnings were further cemented in 1977′s RFC 733, a foundational document of what became the internet itself — a full year before Ayyadurai’s EMAIL project.

It was rough around the edges, but it was email. The work of Tomlinson and his peers was limited, but so too was the internet — and both exploded together. But ask Ayyadurai, and he dismisses it all — these messages weren’t email, but “messages” and nothing more, relegated to some inferior class of communications that he compares to everyday “text messaging and morse code”. It was all just sloppy streams of letters until he made EMAIL — and only then did the system behind Gmail, BlackBerry and every computer on the planet see light.

But Ayyadurai’s claim that he revolutionised how those messages are sent isn’t uncontested either. Dave Crocker, another eminent figure in the history of actual email, calls Ayyadurai’s posturing “theatrical”, rattling off a fat list of email clients — MSG, SNDMSG, HERMES, MS — that did pretty much what EMAIL did, years and years before Ayyadurai started coding. “For a 14-year-old his work was impressive,” Crocker told us over the phone. “What he’s saying about it now as a much older adult is also impressive — but in a very different way.”

It’s possible Ayyadurai was the first to come up with the term “EMAIL.” That alone would be a feat. “In 1971, we called them ‘messages’,” explains Tomlinson, a man so accomplished he can casually mention such things. But even that claim is tenuous, as Crocker points to a scholarly journal titled “EMMS; Electronic Mail and Message Systems.” It was published a year before Ayyadurai did anything. “Newsletters for a topic don’t usually start before the topic has been invented,” says Crocker.

It’s also possible the idea of copying decades-old paper standbys like “blind carbon copy” occurred to Ayyadurai independently of ARPA’s work, and that he put it together in a friendly software package. But that’s about as much as Ayyadurai has on his side, PR team and media credulity notwithstanding. The fact is that the labours of people like Tomlinson and Crocker are the monkey to your Gmail’s homo sapiens, explains Tomlinson: “Email has evolved — FTP is no longer used to transport email. Additional media may be used instead of plain text. Messages are stored in a myriad of ways — Gmail stores messages in databases on huge server farms, messages on my end are stored in files on an IMAP server, etc, but the essence, even the at-sign, remains the same.” That explanation? The words of an “elite group of people who think they own innovation,” according to Ayyadurai.

Except they have history on their side. They need no aggrandisement, no TIME article, no need to take the Washington Post on a ride, no baseless Smithsonian tribute (the museum declined to comment on Ayyadurai’s false apotheosis). They’ve done their work. But anyone who cares about the history of the astoundingly clever and complex things we use daily might suffer from Ayyadurai’s ego campaign. Ayyadurai is free to self-promote — and he’s doing a hell of a job — but when he delves into revisionism, it’s a rare ego trip we shouldn’t let slide.