The Inventor of Email™

VA Shiva AyyaduraiToday, I learned about VA Shiva Ayyadurai. If you ask him, he invented email. One summer. In 1978. When he was 14. It’s an interesting claim. For one thing, you know I’m not fond of the idea of the romantic individual who revolutionizes the world. Generally, when someone is way ahead of his time — think: Gregor Mendel — no one even notices. In general, ideas are in the air. There are many people working on things. And the person who gets credit is usually just whoever managed to go public first.

When it comes to email, the question is just stupid. There are so many aspects to email that any discussion of The Inventor of Email™ will necessarily come down to definitions. I’m so not interested in which particular innovation we are going to claim is what made “messaging” into “email.” And this is very much going on with Ayyadurai. But you don’t even have to go that far.

As far as I can tell, Ayyadurai’s intelligence is only exceeded by his drive for success. And it is exceeded by a great deal! If you look at his Wikpedia page, you will see a far longer page than would normally represent someone of his accomplishments. For example, it is longer than either of the pages for Unix inventors Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson. Am I saying that Ayyadurai has an overzealous public relations department? You can decide for yourself. I want to be careful because he strikes me as the kind of guy who checks his name every hour to see what’s being written about him.

The actual story of the development of email starts before Ayyadurai was born. When he was less than two years old, MIT was using a primitive email system. In 1972, when he was eight, the idea of addressing email as username @ computer had been developed. There is no question that one summer in 1978, when he was but 14 years old, Ayyadurai created an email system. And there is no doubt that that is a remarkable and admirable thing to have done. But it is not clear that he invented any part of email — even the word. He certainly didn’t invent email itself.

Mike Masnick at tech dirt wrote a great article going over the whole thing, Why Is Huffington Post Running a Multi-Part Series to Promote the Lies of a Guy Who Pretended to Invent Email? It’s well worth reading, if for no other reason than to learn about some of the many people who were part of the development of email — which continues to this day.

I’m more interested in why Ayyadurai continues to go around pushing this nonsense about inventing email. Normally, technical people are just pleased to be part of the greater advancement of science and technology. If you look at his Twitter account, the description begins, “Inventor of Email.” To understand why he would care to brand himself as The Inventor of Email™, even while the entire computing community throws up its hands in frustration, all you have to do is look at the last sentence in his Twitter description, “Entrepreneur.”

If you make the mistake of reading his actual Twitter feed, you will see the kind of guy he is. It’s filled with marketing babble like, “#Email is still the most relevant tool for reaching #customers. Find out why in this well written article. #marketing” It’s right up there with, “One #WeirdTrick to reach more #customers! #charlatan” It’s sad that someone who has actual skills feels the need to use them in this way.

In his article, Masnick gets to the point of pleading with Ayyadurai, hoping that he can be convinced to accept being a reasonable part of computer history:

He’s clearly quite proud of the email software he wrote in 1978, and that’s great. He should be. It may have made some incremental improvements on what else was already out there, but it is not inventing email. It’s also entirely possible that he was wholly unaware of everything else that was out there. And, again, that’s great. We’ve talked many times in the past about multiple people coming up with the same ideas around the same time. Ayyadurai should be quite proud of what he’s done. But he’s simply not telling the truth when he claims to have invented email. His website is full of accolades from the past, including his Westinghouse award (which is a prestigious award for high schoolers), his copyrights and his later patents. There are local newspaper clippings. That’s all great. It reminds me of the folder my mother has on all the nice things that happened to me as a kid. But none of it means he invented email.

The problem is that I don’t think Ayyadurai wants credit for the purpose of credit. I think he wants it for branding purposes. He wants to be The Inventor of Email™ because he makes money off it. And that just makes him pathetic. But I’m sure he has made a whole lot of money from this claim. And I’m sure he will continue to do so. After all: Huffington Post has now published a series of articles all about him.

H/T: Michael Hiltzik

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