As a high school student in 1979, he developed an electronic version of an interoffice mail system, which he called “EMAIL” and copyrighted in 1982. That name’s resemblance to the generic term “email” and the claims he later made for the program have led to controversy over Ayyadurai’s place in the history of computer technology. Mass media interest in his work has been followed by public retractions or removals of claims that he invented email by organizations such as The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, as well as the Smithsonian Institution.
Early life and education
Ayyadurai was born to a Hindu Tamil family in Bombay, Maharashtra, India.At the age of seven, he left with his family to live in the United States.At age 14, he attended a special summer program at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences of New York University (NYU) to study computer programming, and later went on to graduate from Livingston High School in Livingston, New Jersey.While attending high school, he also volunteered at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) where his mother worked.His undergraduate degree from MIT was in electrical engineering and computer science; he took a master’s degree in visual studies from the MIT Media Laboratory on scientific visualization; concurrently, he completed another master’s degree in mechanical engineering, also from MIT; and in 2007, he obtained a Ph.D. in biological engineering from MIT in systems biology, with his thesis focusing on modeling the whole cell by integrating molecular pathway models. In 2008, he was awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant to study the integration of Siddha, India’s oldest system of traditional medicine, with modern systems biology in India.
CSIR India controversy
In 2009, Ayyadurai was hired by India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, India’s largest science agency, by its director general, Samir K. Brahmachari. CSIR was mandated to create a new company, CSIR Tech, that would establish businesses using the research conducted by country’s many publicly owned laboratories. Ayyadurai reported that he had spent months trying to create a business plan for CSIR Tech, but received no response from Brahmachari. Ayyadurai then distributed a draft plan, which was not authorized by CSIR, to the agency’s scientists that requested feedback and criticized management. His job offer was subsequently withdrawn five months after the position was offered.”
Brahmachari said that “the offer was withdrawn as [Ayyadurai] did not accept the terms and conditions and demanded unreasonable compensation.” In its report, The New York Times said that “going public with such accusations is highly unusual. Mr. Ayyadurai circulated his paper not just to the agency’s scientists but to journalists, and wrote about his situation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.” In that letter, Ayyadurai said his report was intended to explore institutional barriers to CSIR’s entrepreneurial mandate. He said that CSIR scientists reported that “they work in a medieval, feudal environment” that required a “major overhaul”. The letter was co-authored by a colleague, Deepak Sardana.Pushpa Bhargava, founder director of the CSIR’s Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, endorsed the letter, calling the sacking the worst of many cases he had seen of “vindictiveness in the CSIR” and accused CSIR administration of being “impervious to healthy and fair criticism.” The incident was seen as an example of the difficulty some Indian expatriate professionals may encounter returning home after growing accustomed to the more direct management style of the United States. It was unclear at the time whether the controversy would discourage others.
In 1979, as a 14-year-old high school student at Livingston High School in New Jersey, Ayyadurai began his work on an email system for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. His task was to emulate the paper-based interoffice mail system then in use at the medical school.In 1982, he copyrighted his software, called “EMAIL”, as well as the program’s user documentation. Two years later, he copyrighted “EMS”, which included EMAIL and other programs.
A November 2011 Time Techland interview by Doug Aamoth entitled “The Man Who Invented Email” argued that Ayyadurai’s program represented the birth of email “as we currently know it”. In that interview, Ayyadurai recalled that Les Michelson, the former particle scientist at Brookhaven National Labs who assigned Ayyadurai the project, had the idea of creating an electronic mail system that uses the header conventions of a hardcopy memorandum. Ayyadurai recalled Michelson as saying: “Your job is to convert that into an electronic format. Nobody’s done that before.”
In February 2012, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History announced that Ayyadurai had donated “a trove of documents and code” related to EMAIL. The museum initially and inaccurately cited the program as one of the first to include the now common “subject and body fields, inboxes, outboxes, cc, bcc, attachments, and others. He based these elements directly off of the interoffice mail memos the doctors had been using for years, in hopes of convincing people to actually use the newfangled technology.”Ayyadurai’s claims drew editorial clarifications and corrections, as well as criticism from industry observers. In a followup to its acquisition announcement, the Smithsonian stated that it was not claiming that Ayyadurai had invented email, but rather that the materials were historically notable for other reasons related to trends in computer education and the role of computers in medicine.The Smithsonian statement distinguished Ayyadurai’s achievement by noting that historians in the field, “have largely focused on the use of large networked computers, especially those linked to the ARPANET in the early 1970s.” The statement pointed out that Ayyadurai’s approach instead “focused on communications between linked computer terminals in an ordinary office situation.” The Washington Post also followed up with a correction of errors in its earlier report on the Smithsonian acquisition:
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 email.” 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.
Writing for Gizmodo, Sam Biddle argued that email was developed a decade before EMAIL, beginning with Ray Tomlinson’s sending the first text letter between two computers in 1971. Biddle quoted Tomlinson: “[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.” Biddle allowed for the possibility that Ayyadurai may have coined the term “EMAIL” and used the header terms without being aware of earlier work, but maintained that the historical record isn’t definitive on either point. Biddle wrote that “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 airplane named AIRPLANE doesn’t make you Wilbur Wright.
Writing on the Special Interest Group Computers, Information and Society website, Thomas Haigh, a historian of information technology at the University of Wisconsin, wrote that “Ayyadurai is, to the best of my knowledge, the only person to have claimed for him or herself the title ‘inventor of email.'” Haigh argued that while EMAIL was impressive for a teenager’s work, it contained no features that were not present on previous electronic mail systems and had no obvious influence on later systems. “The most striking thing about Ayyadurai’s claim to have invented electronic mail is how late it comes. Somehow it took him thirty years to alert the world to [his] greatest achievement.” Haigh traced the history of electronic mail to the Compatible Time Sharing System at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as to Tomlinson’s SNDMSG program, writing in theCommunications of the ACM that by 1980, “electronic mail had been in use at MIT for 15 years, Xerox had built a modern, mouse-driven graphical email system for office communication, Compuserve was selling email access to the public, and email had for many years been the most popular application on what was soon to become the Internet.”Another computer historian, Marc Weber, a curator at the Computer History Museum, said that by 1978, “nearly all the features we’re familiar with today had appeared on one system or another over the previous dozen years”, including emoticons, mailing lists, flame wars, and spam.
David Crocker, a member of the ARPANET research community, believed that the origins of email were not in dispute until this controversy. Writing in the Washington Post on the history of email, he asserted that the technology came from many innovators. “The reports incorrectly credited [EMAIL’s] author, a 14-year old in the late 1970s, as the ‘inventor’ of email, long after it had become an established service on the ARPANET.”
Ayyadurai characterized the earlier work of Tomlinson, Tom Van Vleck and others as text messaging, rather than an electronic version of an interoffice mail system.Responding to his critics on his personal website, Ayyadurai described his program EMAIL as “the first of its kind — a fully integrated, database-driven, electronic translation of the interoffice paper mail system derived from the ordinary office situation. It provided the electronic equivalents and features of mail receipt and transmission including: the inbox, outbox, drafts, address book, carbon copies, registered mail, ability to forward, broadcast along with a host of other features that users take for granted in Web-based email programs such as Gmail and Hotmail. To the best of my knowledge, I was the first to design, implement, test and deploy these features in an everyday office situation. This was and is email as we know it today.” Ayyadurai maintained that EMAIL was the first electronic mail system to integrate an easy-to-use user interface, a word processor, a relational database, and a modular inter-communications protocol “integrated together in one single and holistic platform to ensure high-reliability and user-friendliness network-wide.”
Ayyadurai has presented a press release on his webpage asserting that his undergraduate professor Noam Chomsky of MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy also supported his claims.
After the controversy unfolded, MIT disassociated itself from Ayyadurai’s EMAIL Lab and funding was dropped. MIT also revoked Ayyadurai’s contract to lecture at the bioengineering department.
In May 2016, Ayyadurai filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts against Gawker Media for $35 million. The suit alleges that Gawker published “false and defamatory statements” in connection with Ayyadurai’s claim to have invented email, causing “substantial damage to Dr. Ayyadurai’s personal and professional reputation and career.” The filing also named writer Sam Biddle, executive editor John Cook, and Gawker founder/CEO Nick Denton. In a statement, Gawker responded: “These claims to have invented email have been repeatedly debunked by the Smithsonian Institute [sic], Gizmodo, the Washington Post and others.”
On September 7, 2014, Ayyadurai and actress Fran Drescher participated in a ceremony at Drescher’s beach house. Both tweeted that they had gotten married, and the event was widely reported as such.Ayyadurai later said it was not “a formal wedding or marriage”, but a celebration of their “friendship in a spiritual ceremony with close friends and her family.” The couple parted ways two years later.