Last month the Washington Post published a profile of Shiva Ayyadurai, describing him as the "inventor of e-mail" based on a program called EMAIL that he wrote in the late 1970s as a New Jersey high school student. This sparked a firestorm of controversy, with many readers pointing out that electronic messaging predated Ayyadurai's work by several years, and the Post eventually posted a lengthy correction. So, is this Ayyadurai a chancer, trying to claim credit for a revolutionary invention he had nothing to do with? Not if you believe his convoluted side of the story, which Gizmodo ran today. Ayyadurai claims that after he exposed corruption in a local R&D organization, the Indian government is trying to discredit him with smears against his character.
Unfortunately, the fact that Ayyadurai seems all too willing to be profiled as the inventor of email in major news outlets — and that he owns and runs the domain inventorofemail.com — would seem to heavily undermine his defense. What he could have a claim to is the first use of the term "email," and he was indeed awarded the copyright for his EMAIL software in 1982. He's less than clear about the distinction on his site, though, using semantic maneuvers such as dismissing Ray Tomlinson's groundbreaking first message via ARPANET in 1971 as "pre-EMAIL," while claiming that the iPhone uses "EMAIL" to this day. As Gizmodo notes, "creating a type of airplane named AIRPLANE doesn't make you Wilbur Wright." Like many other technologies, it's difficult to ascribe a single inventor to email, but it's safe to say that Shiva Ayyadurai would not be our first choice.