The Man Who Invented Email

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Photo by Donna Coveney

So the original system was set up for doctors to communicate electronically using the template they were already used to.

Shiva: Yeah. The way the University of Medicine and Dentistry was set up was that they had three locations—Newark, Piscataway, and New Brunswick. Within each building, they had those old tubes where you’d put the container in and it’d get shot around to the right place. And I just observed how these guys sent mail out. It was fascinating. The secretary would write something, she’d put the carbon copy—literally a carbon copy—in the container and send it out.

So in order to create a real email system, you needed a relational database and you needed to make it really easy. Even today, if you read a Forrester report, I think 15 or 16 percent of doctors still don’t use e-mail. We had to make a simple user interface: inbox, outbox, folders—those were literally replicas of how these guys communicated using physical mail.

And that’s what I ended up doing in ’78 and ’79. We did one of the early demos and wrote the user manual—all this stuff: training, tutorials—and a lot of it was the cultural piece. How do you get people to convert? Would the doctors use it or would the assistants use it?

I was planning on dropping out of high school because I was just very bored, and one of my teachers urged me not to drop out, telling me about this thing called the Westinghouse Science Contest—I think they call it the Intel Science Awards now. He told me I should apply for it, and the application was “a High Reliability, Network-Wide, Electronic Mail System.”

And so I ended up winning one of the honors awards out of that. It’s only then that I started realizing what the significance was. But when I really noticed it was when I came to MIT in 1981 and on the front page of the paper, they described three students out of the incoming class of a thousand, saying that one of the students designed the first electronic mail system.

Then later, I think it was ’81 or ’82, the RFC protocol was changed to add the “from:”, the “cc:”—those things. So that was an afterthought. But when I refer to electronic mail, it’s literally the conversion of this paper mail into electronic mail. And people still don’t get that definition, so that’s why there’s this confusion. They think it was text messaging, so Facebook or any of these other platforms are going to replace it, right?

Ray Tomlinson is often credited as the inventor of email. Is he credited correctly, in your opinion, or should he be credited for something else?

Shiva: I think that’s the thing that’s sort of resulted in this confusion. Since ’94, people have always said something’s going to kill e-mail—and the latest was text messaging, right? Ray and Tom Van Vleck really did text messaging. In fact, in one of Tom’s early communications he says his boss wouldn’t let him do electronic letters internally, which is actually the mail piece of it. So they were more focused from a messaging standpoint: How do you get a message from point A to point B to manipulate another machine at that more core level?

Where did blind carbon copying come from? Was it a function the doctors were using?

Shiva: Yes, they used to call it “BCC”. Michelson would do this. If he wanted to spread a message, he would “CC” it. If he wanted to let his boss know but he didn’t want other people to know because of certain office politics, he would “BCC” it.

So those functions were in place.

Shiva: Yes, those things were present in the actual office mail systems. That’s what I did. That was “electronic mail,” with the emphasis on the word “mail”—it should really be lowercase E.

It sounds like the system we use today hasn’t changed all that much.

Shiva: Exactly, because the fundamentals of the system came from interoffice mail, which went through decades and decades of development. There’s still the “to:”, the “from:”, the “cc:”, the subject line, the body and the attachments. Attachments were originally called enclosures, because in the physical mail system they’d type “encl.” followed by the enclosure.

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