If you’re reading this, you’re online and, as such, you probably have an email account. But have you ever wondered about the origins of email? It’s not exactly a cut-and-dried case, as various forms of electronic messaging have been around since the humble telegraph.
I had the opportunity to sit down with V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, who holds the first copyright for “EMAIL”—a system he began building in 1978 at just 14 years of age. It was modeled after the communication system being used at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark, New Jersey. His task: replicate the University’s traditional mail system electronically.
And with that, email—as we currently know it—was born.
In 1981, Shiva took honors at the Westinghouse Science Awards for his “High Reliability, Network-Wide, Electronic Mail System” and attended MIT later that fall. The copyright for the term EMAIL was granted to Shiva in 1982, after which he won a White House competition for developing a system to automatically analyze and sort email messages. That technology eventually became the basis for EchoMail, a service used by several large businesses.
Here’s the interview:
What’s the backstory of email? How did it all come together?
Shiva: It was purely out of the love of doing it. I was given this opportunity to just program, and this was in 1978 when you couldn’t get a programming job, per se—it was very, very early. I look back on that scene: Here’s a 14-year-old living in New Jersey, and the National Science Foundation put out a call saying they needed to educate the youth on computer programming.
There was a very interesting and visionary computer professor at NYU called Henry Mullish, who was at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, a very, very prestigious institute. So Henry basically said, “Okay, let’s get 40 high school students in an immersion program trained on seven different programming languages.” And I was one of those 40 selected.
Henry did this interesting thing: He basically taught us all these old programming languages—COBOL, SNOBOL, PL/I—for eight weeks, from June until the end of the summer. So I finished up, and my mom was working at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which is in Newark—my parents had just come from India five years before and my mom was a mathematician. She introduced me to this guy Les Michelson, who was your typical mad scientist—he had worked at Brookhaven National Labs as a particle physicist.
He was given a room to put his first computer in and start the lab for computer science, which was one computer and one HP mainframe. And Les said, “Hey, would you like to create an electronic mail system?” So I said, “Yeah,” and I was just nodding my head, thinking he meant sending electricity through paper, because this guy’s a particle physicist.
I came back the next day and he said, “Look, I want you to go observe how people send out mail.” Basically, each doctor had an office and the secretary typed the word “memorandum” followed by the “to:”, the “from:”, the subject line, the body, and then any carbon copies or attachments. And Michelson said, “Your job is to convert that into an electronic format. Nobody’s done that before.”
These guys I was working with were in their 50’s and 60’s, and they treated me as an equal. And I think that was a fascinating thing: Here’s a 14-year-old working among 60-year-olds, and it was like there was no difference. That’s why I think innovation takes place in America. In countries like India or China, a Steve Jobs will never come around. The fundamentals aren’t there—there’s this feudal hierarchy. So just in retrospect, I look back and these guys let me into this very collegial atmosphere.
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(MORE: A Brief History of the Computer)