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Was Email Actually Invented by a 14-year-old Indian Boy?

Do we have a 14-year-old Indian boy to thank for inventing email in 1978?

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This 15 July, Indiatimes celebrated the 32nd birthday of email. The story goes that in 1978, a 14-year-old Indian boy living in USA, VA Shiva Ayyadurai, created an electronic replica of the physical interoffice mail system. This system, which he called ‘EMAIL’, possessed components similar to the physical system like an inbox, an outbox, folders, an address book etc.

But Ayyadurai’s position as the inventor of email is under dispute. There are counter claims from within the information technology community that it was, in fact, ARPANET contractor Ray Tomlinson who sent the first email in 1971.

They claim that what Ayyadurai invented was simply an email management system which he named ‘EMAIL’ . He was later awarded a copyright for that name in 1981. The copyright application title is ‘Computer program for electronic mail system’ and the title is ‘EMAIL’.

The Washington Post and Time Magazine, both ran articles referring to Ayyadurai as the inventor of email. The Washington Post, later, ran a long correction.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai as the inventor of electronic messaging. This version has been corrected. The previous, online version of this story also incorrectly cited Ayyadurai’s invention as containing, “The lines of code that produced the first ‘bcc,’ ‘cc,’ ‘to’ and ‘from’ fields.” These features were outlined in earlier documentation separate from Ayyadurai’s work. The original headline also erroneously implied that Ayyadurai had been “honored by [the] Smithsonian” as the “inventor of e-mail.” Dr. Ayyadurai was not honored for inventing electronic messaging. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History incorporated the paperwork documenting the creation of his program into their collection. A previous version also incorrectly stated that had Ayyadurai “pursued a patent, it could have significantly stunted the technology’s growth even as it had the potential to make him incredibly wealthy.” At the time, patents were not awarded for the creation of software.
—The Washington Post

They also ran a clarification under the correction.

Clarification: 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 U.S. Copyright Office.
—The Washington Post

Wikipedia’s Talk page on Ayyadurai features a long conversation between Wikipedia editors about the veracity of the page’s claims that he is the inventor of email.

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Topics:  Email   Invention 

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