The Forgotten Man Is An Inventor Too
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is ready to do away with Elizabeth Warren and all of her lies. Big Government tried to stop him, the Establishment Republicans want to silence him, and his birth nation turned its back on him. He is an American Indian, he voted for Trump, and he’s on the Warpath headed straight to victory. But if he’s going to win, Massachusetts voters will need to get one thing straight: Who invented email? The question is a simple one and at first glance it leaves little room for subjectivity. In a perfectly rational world this sort of piece wouldn’t need to be written, but we live in a world where academics think there are 96 genders so let’s just drop the assumption of rational behavior. Many academics have made up their mind on the matter of email–at least publicly–but their conclusions aren’t exactly the full story. That’s a problem since the question is hardly as easy to answer as one would like, and in some sense, the truth of the matter might weigh heavily on the balance that decides who wins the Senate race in Massachusetts. In 20 months, voters will head to the ballot box in the Commonwealth and they will have the chance to unseat a fake indian. Her clearest challenger at present is a real Indian, a Trump supporter, and perhaps one of the greatest unrecognized entrepreneurs living in Massachusetts. What does this have to do with email? Likely everything. If that sounds crazy, well, at least you’re paying attention.
A few days ago I was fortunate enough to speak to the real Indian I refer to above. His name is Shiva Ayyadurai. Ayyadurai was a Fulbright scholar, he holds multiple PhDs from MIT, and he is the brains behind several entrepreneurial ventures many of which are valued in the multi millions. He came here as a young boy and lived an all-American lifestyle where he managed a newspaper route and played baseball. While in college, he fought against the apartheid in South Africa and was instrumental in the divestment process at MIT. He even ran for student government (and won) on a platform that was inclusive to women.
He came to loathe academics that he viewed as elitists that mask political partisanship carefully. In some way, he felt tokenized by these Ivory Tower liberals. That’s one of the reasons he was drawn to math. “Math is real,” he said with excitement in his voice. “It’s like lifting weights, you can either do it or you can’t. There’s no politics.”
As an adult, he traveled back to his birth-nation, India, and was employed in a prestigious program where he was paid a lucrative salary and given a large government home to live in. Selflessly, needlessly, and without any conceivable path to self-aggrandizement, he spoke out against corruption he discovered during his brief employment there. The Indian government quickly shut down his internet access and revoked his job offer. He described this persecution as the moment he realized that India never had a real nationalist movement and that all the world learned from Gandhi is that “Indians don’t fight back.” But that is starting to change now under India’s new Prime Minister Modi, and according to Ayyadurai, those changes are happening in America too. He believes strongly in the need for a “good nationalist revolution,” and to that end he supports Trump. He also claims to have invented the email and the controversy from such a bold assertion has dogged him for some time. Without a doubt, he copyrighted EMAIL in 1982 but that hasn’t stopped the establishment from denying the importance of his creation.
Before I learned all of this and before we first spoke, I thought he was just a clever con artist capitalizing off of a populist movement that has had unparalleled success. I thought he was a demagogue riding the coattails. While I still don’t particularly agree with some of the policy positions he has staked out in the past, that’s beside the point and for a later discussion. I’m far too right-wing for this Commonwealth, anyways.
Since he’s framing himself as a real Indian running against the fake indian, this is an article about whether or not he’s a fake inventor. I don’t mean clickbait, but the answer will leave you a bit surprised. The facts are unquestionably supportive of his claim.
Like almost anyone else, to get to the answer of what should be a simple question, I did the most intellectually lazy thing possible: I Googled ‘who invented the email.’ Through the effort of his savvy SEO campaign, Ayyadurai’s website pops up almost immediately. You’ll also see a number of detracting articles that give credit to another inventor that was part of a government-funded research program. I was inclined to believe the detractors initially. But I don’t think that’s fair anymore.
The World Is Not What It Seems To Be. Why Should The World Wide Web Be Different?
The general consensus, which has regrettably devolved into received wisdom, is that Ray Tomlinson is justifiably the ‘Father of email.’ This is a rather fascinating claim since as far as I can tell the project he was working on was never called email. They called it ‘netmail.’ That is a distinction worth diving into momentarily since the limitations of the program attributed to Tomlinson are somewhat related, but before I lose some of you, let’s just cover the basics. Tomlinson may very well have been the first to send a message over an early network called ARPANET but whether he was the first to consider doing so is highly questionable–even by some of his colleagues. Even if he was the first, his claim to the title of inventor of email is also dubious. He died a year ago so it’s a bit difficult to take him to task on this. We’ll return to his implementation a bit later.
Ayyadurai isn’t the only person involved in early computing to make credible claims that his inventions were attributed to the wrong party. In fact, before even discussing the technical aspects of Ayyadurai’s claim it’s probably much more useful to consider the words of an entirely unrelated party: Michael A. Padlipsky. Padlipsky worked on the development of ARPANET alongside Tomlinson and as profuse and entertaining author of e-zines later in life, he had a chance to tell quite a bit about his experience during the early days of systems computing.
Padlipsky, or MAP as he would sign at the bottom of his writings, was a widely respected pioneer. In his reflections he discussed how Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN), now a subsidiary of Raytheon, acted quickly to write the history of computing once it became clear that the internet would become a commercial success:
Before the ‘Net became big business, it was fairly easy for us to shrug it off; things had worked out, and what did it matter whether he, or I, or Gary, or even one of the BBN guys — who always seemed to get to write the histories and hence always seemed to have claimed to have invented everything, anyway, perhaps because BBN was the only “for-profit” to furnish key members of the original Network Working Group — had actually been the first to enunciate an idea that was almost always implicit in the discussion to begin with?
MAP goes on to pretend that he doesn’t quite know why this sort of behavior developed, though it’s all too clear he has a hunch. At the time, it seems that the researchers were enthusiastic scientists shouting ideas at each other and then all attempting to put them into practice. When the dust settled, many of them couldn’t remember where an idea had originated but often could remember where it did not. It always seemed to MAP that those taking credit were the ones that did not deserve to do so but whether or not this was an honest mistake or “just plain theft of intellectual property,” MAP wasn’t sure. Padlipsky was certain of one thing though. “I don’t believe Ray Tomlinson invented ‘e-mail.’ And not because of the quibble that we called it netmail originally,” Padlipsky wrote. “Ray wasn’t at the meeting where [netmail] became part of the ‘Net, although, granted, he was, as far as I know, the first person to send mail from one computer to another over a network, even though they were like computers which isn’t particularly interesting or challenging…for all I know somebody at the National Physical Laboratory in England had already done at least the same.”
In London…Or, perhaps, A Teenager In New Jersey Did Something Even More Profound.
First and foremost, Ayyadurai makes no claim towards having transmitted the first electronic message from one device to another. If you ask him whether he’s making such claims he will quip that the first electronic messages date back to the telegraph. Conventionally, we like to credit Samuel Morse with that invention. Coincidentally, though, more primitive models existed well before Morse made any attempt. Yet, most people still give Morse credit for the invention despite it being an evolution of a previous creation. Ayyadurai’s claim as inventor of EMAIL isn’t unlike Morse’s claim in that sense. Morse has given his name to the system of communication still used today, but other more primitive electronic signals were being sent before he invented his device that enabled messages to be recorded in real-time. This modification by Morse made the technology a more practical utility. Likewise, Ayyadurai is making a similar claim with EMAIL. He argues that while ARPANET was sending simple messages to and from computer terminals on the same network, his invention enabled those without computer programming skills to utilize a computer to transmit messages. “It’s the system, Brett,” he’d repeat again and again. What Ayyadurai was able to integrate were all the parts of a modern email platform. In order to use the ARPANET messaging feature one had to know various commands and specific syntax and they even discussed how the utility wouldn’t be accessible to those that didn’t have the requisite expertise. It wasn’t user-friendly to say the least.
What did Ayyadurai do? Well, he independently created his own system of electronic communication while just a teenager and his system was not limited by the skill level of the end user. To understand why the two parallel creations were so different in result, it’s important to recognize where Ayyadurai was working: on a medical campus. The ARPANET’s programmers were approaching their project from an entirely different vantage point. They were creating something new. Ayyadurai was replacing something old. Just what was he replacing? The system currently employed by an army of secretaries to transfer memos and information to and from various locations on a medical campus–the interoffice memo. Originally, the interoffice memo was written on a typewriter (often on carbon paper to create multiple copies) and then transported through pneumatic tubes (for the youngin’ reading this, think about the drive through at the bank) where it arrived at a sorting station and was delivered by hand to it’s final destination. All of these memos were typed or re-typed by secretaries. It was a daunting, slow, and inefficient process. But there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that these secretaries could practically study computer programming so that they could use ARPANET and even if they did, ARPANET didn’t have all the functions that they needed to go about their daily business.
So, working under the guidance of his mentor Les Michelson, young Ayyadurai began working to create an integrated system of components to replace the very cluttered physical process. But unlike ARPANET, he had to be careful to include all of the features that secretaries were using at the time into one simple interface. When he finished, he had written over 50,000 lines of code and spent many late nights working. But it was a success and was implemented almost seamlessly into the very busy office environment. It had a folder system for inbound messages and one for sent messages. It had an integrated word processor. It had the ability to transmit messages to multiple senders using the “BCC” tag. It had everything that google or yahoo or any other email provider has today. This was done in 1978 by a 14 year old boy’s invention. Here’s how that inventor, now a grown man running for Senate, described it:
“Before Steve Jobs created the computer, people had to build their own computers. They had to buy the parts separately and assemble it. That’s what made the Mackintosh revolutionary. It was accessible to millions of people. Email made the computer accessible to millions of people and that’s what I invented.”
To summarize: Tomlinson unquestionably was involved in an earlier project that was able to send messages between computers on a network. His invention of the process that allowed these messages to be sent is probably dubious. Did he send the first message? Maybe. Could the average secretary have hopped onto that computer after him and sent the second message? No chance in Hell. Did ARPANET refer to the mail sending process as “email?” No. As far as I can tell, Shiva Ayyadurai is the first person to coin the term–a term that he copyrighted in 1982–and while I don’t really know if it’s fair to call either of them the inventor of “email,” it is without a doubt that Shiva Ayyadurai’s invention at 14 was the first rendition of EMAIL as a system that would be recognizable to the modern user.
So while I am uncomfortable calling anyone the inventor of email, I will fight tooth and nail to argue that he was the first inventor of the system we all know and love today. Others have made similar inventions, sure. But Shiva Ayyadurai did it first because he had the frame of mind that was concerned with the end user’s experience. If he can translate that framing, if he can become a politician concerned about the voter, he will have a victory in his hands 20 months from now. He already has my vote.
Shiva Ayyadurai is an Indian on the warpath and he’s coming for you Lizzy.
In The Meantime… Hey LIZZY: