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Yes, Ayyadurai copyrighted ‘EMAIL’ program, but generic email used for years before

“We all believe that Email was invented by the American. But that’s not true.”

So says a meme shared on Facebook in South Africa in November 2019.

It shows an old black and white photo of a boy, next to a colour photo of what looks like the boy as an adult.

“Email was invented by ‘Shiva Ayyadurai’, 14 years old Indian boy in 1978,” the meme continues. “Around 294 Billion emails are sent and received on a daily basis in the world. But unfortunately no one knows him. Lets make him famous.”

Did Shiva Ayyadurai invent email?

Estimated 293.6 billion emails sent and received per day in 2019

Statista is one of the world’s leading statistics portals. According to their data, approximately 281.1 billion emails were sent and received every day worldwide in 2018. 

For 2019, the number is currently predicted to be 293.6 billion. The actual number will be updated in 2020. So the meme is correct about roughly how many emails are sent on a daily basis. 

Electronic messaging already existed in early 1960s

“Email is much older than ARPANet or the Internet. It was never invented; it evolved from very simple beginnings,” says the website NetHistory

NetHistory was started by Ian Peter, who was involved in early internet networks from the mid-1980s and is a technology and policy strategist.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the headline “Postal Service pushes ahead with E-mail”, from June 1979, was the first official use of the word “e-mail”.

But computer-based messaging and mail already became possible in the early 1960s. 

Two computer systems were used as data communication systems at that time: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Compatible Time Sharing System (CTSS) and the US government’s AUTODIN

These early computer systems were generally not compatible with each other. Only people within the same system could exchange messages. 

Early electronic messages very like modern email

Thomas Haigh, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in the US, wrote on the SIGCIS website about versions of electronic mail, or email, dating back to the 1960s, with features such as “to”, “cc” and “bcc” fields.

These are fields that are common in email programs today. The “to” field is where you enter the email address of your intended recipient. “Cc” and “bcc” are short for “carbon copy” and “blind carbon copy”. You enter additional recipients in the “cc” field, which will be visible to all who receive your email. If you include an email address in the “bcc” field, a copy of the email is sent to this address, but other recipients won’t see it. 

Engineer David Crocker is a senior member of the international organisation, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

In a paper from December 1977, David Crocker identified “electronic mail” as “one of the earliest and most popular applications of the ARPANET”. Arpanet is considered the technical foundation of the internet. 

The paper was commissioned by the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and published by the Rand Corporation

In his 1977 paper, Crocker included sample emails that look exactly like modern emails.

Ray Tomlinson, a US computer programmer, is widely credited as the creator of the method of sending emails between different computers across Arpanet.  

He did this by introducing the “@” sign in 1971, to allow messages to be targeted at specific users on certain machines.

Copyright for computer program ‘EMAIL’

Dr Shiva Ayyadurai, the man featured in the meme, is an engineer born in India. He has four degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1979, Ayyadurai did develop an electronic mail program for the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry (now Rutgers Medical School) while a high school student. 

His task was “to design and implement a customised electronic mail system for the research staff of the medical school, who used an HP1000 minicomputer”.

Ayyadurai called the electronic mail program “EMAIL”. It was a systemreplicating all the functions of the interoffice mail system”, with electronic “inboxes”, “outboxes” and an “address book”. 

According to the US Copyright Office, Ayyadurai has held the copyright to the computer program called EMAIL since 1981.

Shiva Ayyadurai’s invention from 1978 and the copyright associated with it are in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History’s permanent collection. They clarified the significance of Ayyadurai’s invention in an official statement in February 2012.

“Exchanging messages through computer systems, what most people call ‘email,’ predates the work of Ayyadurai,” the statement said.

“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.”

Electronic messages predate software program ‘EMAIL’

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term “invent” as “to produce (something...) for the first time through the use of the imagination or of ingenious thinking and experiment”.

No one person is universally credited for the “invention” of electronic messaging or email as we know it today. 

Yes, Shiva Ayyadurai programmed an electronic messaging program that was a version of the interoffice paper-based mail system. But electronic messaging similar to email today existed before Shiva Ayyadurai’s 1978 software program called “EMAIL”. – Eileen Jahn


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