Self styled “Inventor of Email” to speak at postal conference

Boston magazine’s June issue carries a lengthy article on the continuing saga of V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, an MIT lecturer who claims he invented email, and who will be speaking at the upcoming PostalVision 2020 conference in Washington later this month. According to the PostalVision web site, Ayyadurai “in 1978 created the world’s first EMAIL system”. We told you about Ayyadurai and his claims last December after he told an interviewer he’d been asked to advise the US Postal Service. According to the Boston story, “The Postal Service has given Shiva a contract to continue sharing his ideas on e-mail management.” This and the invitation to the PostalVision conference come despite nearly universal rejection of Ayyadurai’s email invention claim by the people who were actually involved in the development of email and the Internet, and the fact that, according to Boston, “his speaking engagements have been canceled, the funding for his EMAIL lab has evaporated, and his contract to lecture in MIT’s bioengineering department has been revoked”. Here’s what has happened since our last story:

The MIT newspaper, The Tech carried an uncritical story about Ayyadurai in January entitled “Can an MIT professor save the USPS?“, but subsequently added a correction:

This brief incorrectly titled Shiva Ayyaduri and credits him with the first copyright to email. He is a faculty lecturer. Also, while he holds a copyright from 1982 titled “EMAIL,” Ayyaduri is not the inventor of email, which began in the 1960s.

In February the Smithsonian accepted Ayyadurai’s donation of various “artifacts” of his alleged invention. After a Washington Post article on the donation referred to Ayyadurai as the inventor of email, the Smithsonian issued a clarification:

On Feb. 16, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History collected a selection of materials from Shiva Ayyadurai of MIT. In accepting these objects, the museum did not claim that Ayyadurai was “the inventor of email,” as some press accounts have alleged.

In March, MIT went ahead with a conference on “The Future of the Post Office”, which featured Ayyadurai, despite criticism from some at MIT that it could damage the schools reputation- and according to Boston, the event’s moderator felt it was necessary to address the complaints at the outset:

You can feel the tension in the room as David Thorburn, director of MIT’s communications forum, steps to the podium.“I’ve received a number of thoughtful and sometimes not-so-thoughtful messages on e-mail in the past weeks from MIT alumni and others,” Thornburn says. “But today’s event is not about the history of e-mail, nor about Shiva himself. It’s about the future of the post office.”

What’s most fascinating about the whole case is the fact that no one at the Post, the Smithsonian, the Tech, or the USPS appear to have done the most basic research into Ayyadurai’s story. A quick scan of Google or any of the online news databases turns up no evidence of Ayyadurai’s invention claim prior to 2010, when he registered the vanity domain “inventorofemail.com”. The closest matches are stories referring to him as the inventor of EchoMail, a commercial email company he founded, and as inventor of the “White House encryption system” in a 1996 Christian Science Monitor story. An article in the Hindustan Times in 2009 says Ayyadurai created “one of the world’s earliest email systems”. But there’s nothing about inventing email. While his current MIT faculty profile page sports an extensive sidebar full of “evidence” backing his claim, as recently as last fall there was no mention of it. The Internet Archive preserves a copy of the profile page from 2010– despite a lengthy listing of awards and accomplishments, there’s no claim to have invented email. “Research Associate, E-Mail System, UMDNJ Laboratory for Computer Science” is how he summarizes the period when he allegedly made his ground-breaking invention. Ayyadurai’s bio on the current EchoMail “about us” page says “His E-Mail technology has won numerous awards”, but doesn’t suggest that he invented email.

According to the Boston story, though, there was, briefly, one place where you could have found backing for Ayyadurai’s claim- Wikipedia:

on August 31, 2011, Shiva edited Wikipedia’s e-mail entry to say that “the term ‘EMAIL’ was officially coined by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, who received the first copyright for EMAIL in 1982.”

This was followed by

heated conversations involving Shiva and Wikipedia editors, who’d charged that Shiva’s edits were self-promotional, and thereby invalid. “Why are you blocking me??!” Shiva had asked the editors.

“This might come across as strange,” one editor replied, “but Wikipedia is not so much interested in ‘the truth,’ but what is verifiable.”

Wikipedia now has a page devoted to Ayyadurai, noting that he is “best known for his controversial claims to have “invented” email (or EMAIL)”. The page includes a section on Ayyadurai’s claims, mentioning the email system he created as a student:

In recent years Ayyadurai has used this work to make a series of claims leading to the claim to have “invented” email despite the well-documented prior invention and use of the technology, and the lack of any evidence that his system was influential.

For more on the “inventor of email”, check out “Corruption, Lies, and Death Threats: The Crazy Story of the Man Who Pretended to Invent Email” at Gizmodo, which neatly summarizes Ayyadurai’s “invention”:

Shiva Ayyadurai didn’t invent email—he created “EMAIL,” an electronic mail system implemented at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark, New Jersey. It’s doubtful he realized it as a little teen, but 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.