Feuding over origins of the electronic mail

Published: 24th July 2013 08:19 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th July 2013 08:19 AM   |  A+A-


V A Shiva Ayyadurai’s claim to fame is what he says is the first manifestation of modern email, developed using a programming language called FORTRAN 4. But that very claim has now left him embroiled in a bitter war, which broke out early last year with other researchers from the Pentagon funded ARPANET.

Shiva, who has his roots in the sleepy little town of Rajapalayam in Tamil Nadu, was born in Mumbai. After immigrating to the US at the age of 7, Shiva began to code software programming languages by the time he turned 10 – which was when he started working on an electronic messaging system for the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey.

He received a copyright for the email in 1982, but the controversy came to the fore in February 2012, when Shiva donated some of the documents containing the original code which he used to create his version of the email to the Smithsonian Institution.

Following this, researchers from ARPANET and BBN disputed Ayyadurai’s claim, forcing the Smithsonian to clarify that they were not acknowledging the MIT professor as the sole inventor of email, but were only acquiring documents to chronicle the evolution of electronic mail.

Bitter war

Detractors say that the first documented email sent over a network was in 1971 by ARPANET, which predates Shiva’s system by seven years. It has quickly become a long and bitter war between Ayyadurai and the researchers at ARPANET, with both parties accusing each other of trying to usurp what they believe, is their invention.

Shiva, speaking to City Express, claims that the dispute is purely a design by the “elitist, venture capitalists at MIT and BBN (Bolt, Beranek and Newman), who do not want the world to believe that a 14-year-old Indian kid could invent electronic mail.”

Shiva’s contention is that Ray Tomlinson (who is acknowledged to have invented email) invented the system known as SNDMSG, a command program capable of transmitting text strings over a network connection, but was not designed to replicate interoffice paper mail system, which Shiva, as his copyright issued in 1982 states, had designed.

Those who dispute Ayyadurai’s claims say that his work, though impressive, was not an innovation. Critics argue that Ayyadurai simply has a copyright to the term ‘email’ and also its concept, but not the actual system which is in use today.

Shiva who is in Chennai currently, counteracts that claim with, “The Oxford English dictionary did not define the term prior to 1979, so how could you call their work email? They did good work, but it was electronic messaging, which is different from email,” says Ayyadurai. However, it has been pointed out, that even the term ‘e-mail’ was not used by Shiva till 1981 during the submission of his paper for the Westinghouse competition.

Support System

Though he is currently fighting many pioneers of the early Internet, Shiva has found some pretty powerful supporters, not least of whom is Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of the department of linguistics and philosophy at MIT, and a powerful opponent of American imperialism and entrenched power structures, who has stated in a release, “The efforts to belittle the innovation of a 14-year-old child (Shiva) should lead to reflection on the larger story, not undermine the capacities for creative inquiry.”

From being a dilettante in radical left-wing politics in his youth, to running businesses worth millions, Shiva has come a long way. But the acrimony surrounding his one claim to fame, the one which would in essence, put him on the pedestal on par with some of the greatest innovators who changed how the world works in the 21st century, is a mantle which looks set to elude him.

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