Return to Sender
V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai — the MIT lecturer who invented e-mail — had spent years blasting the struggling United States Postal Service for its failure to embrace the revenue potential of his creation. So when he was recruited to help save the U.S. Mail earlier this year, Ayyadurai made headlines and was suddenly a star. That’s when the trouble started.
V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai at his home in Belmont. (Photo by Miller Mobley.)
On a warm evening in the middle of march, V.A. Shiva Ayyudarai sat in the front row of a packed auditorium at the MIT media lab.
Dressed in a black blazer and T-shirt, Ayyadurai was on comfortable turf. He had four degrees from the Institute, lectured in two of its departments, and, at 48, had earned his place on a campus where success is measured in the number of businesses launched and millions earned.
Ayyadurai — known to everyone as Shiva — has been a Fulbright scholar, a Lemelson-MIT student prize nominee, and the entrepreneurial brains behind seven businesses, including EchoMail, a $200 million company that counted Nike, the U.S. Senate, and the Clinton White House as customers. But his greatest achievement came when he was just 14 and living with his immigrant parents in New Jersey. Back then, toiling away in his spare time, Shiva had invented e-mail, an accomplishment that would, in time, change the course of human communication — a fact not lost on Shiva, whose personal website is called inventorofemail.com.
For all his spectacular successes, Shiva was most proud of devising e-mail. Yet he’d been plagued for decades by a guilty sense that his invention had led to the unraveling of another great component of human — or at least American — communication: the United States Postal Service. Since as far back as 1997, Shiva had been trying to get the post office to imagine a world beyond merely delivering letters and packages, to embrace and profit from the growing business of e-mail. But for reasons he’d never understood, the U.S. Mail had been content to keep things as they were. Last fall, when the post office announced massive layoffs and service cuts in a desperate scramble to deal with its billions in debt, Shiva had had enough. “I think that if the Postal Service dies,” Shiva said at the time, “it will be the end of democracy as we know it.” He proposed that the post office create a new form of e-mail, one that was safe, private, and subject to the same federal regulations that protect the bills and junk mail that are delivered to our mailboxes. He was flummoxed by the agency’s ineptitude: “What the f*#@ was the #USPS management doing for 10 years?” he tweeted. “They should have owned EMAIL …. ” Caustic comments like these coming from the inventor of e-mail sparked the interest of the media, and soon Shiva was being quoted in Fast Company and Time magazines.
Then, in a breakthrough, the post office’s inspector general came calling, asking Shiva for his ideas on how they could enter the digital age. A few weeks later, the Smithsonian announced that it was accepting the documents from Shiva’s adolescent e-mail work into its archives, where they would be counted among other great inventions like the telegraph, the light bulb, and the artificial heart. While he was in DC to hand off his papers, the Washington Post recorded a video series with Shiva and published a fawning profile of him.
Now he was at the MIT Media Lab with a group of experts he’d assembled for a panel discussion on “The Future of the Post Office.” Among the participants was the Postal Service’s inspector general himself, David Williams. Thirty years after inventing e-mail, Shiva had now positioned himself to solve a national crisis. His moment had arrived. But he kept looking nervously around the room.
V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai grew up in Newark, the brilliant son of Indian parents who’d moved to the United States from Bombay when he was seven. He says his journey to inventing e-mail began seven years later, when, in 1978, he learned the computer code FORTRAN IV at a summer course at New York University and soon lost interest in the day-to-day rigors of school, telling his parents that he didn’t feel challenged and might drop out. So one day his mother brought him to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, where she was a data systems analyst, and asked a colleague whether there was any-thing her son could do.
That colleague, Les Michelson, had been working with computers to automate research in the hospital’s labs, and was looking for ways to apply the technology to the office setting. “I had this idea that we were going to take memoranda and automate them and eliminate paper,” he recalls. He invited Shiva to assist with the project. For the next two and a half years, Shiva spent his nights and weekends at the hospital, eventually taking over leadership of Michelson’s team. Using computers connected through a localized server, he created a tool that gave hospital employees a digital mailbox where they could exchange messages and attachments. He called the system EMAIL.
In 1981 Shiva, then 16 and applying for a Westinghouse Science Talent Search award, envisioned a future for his program: “When Thomas Alva Edison invented the light bulb, he never perceived that this invention would have such world-wide acceptance and acclaim; however, it has … ” he wrote. “One day, electronic mail, like Edison’s bulb, may also permeate and pervade our daily lives.” That September, he enrolled at MIT, where a cover story in Tech Talk noted his accomplishment and introduced him as one of the stars of the class of 1985.
Before his sophomore year, Shiva registered a copyright for his EMAIL program. He majored in electrical engineering and computer science (and also researched the Indian caste system while studying under Noam Chomsky). After graduation, he went on to earn dual masters and a doctorate from the Institute. He started EchoMail in 1995, and somewhere in the late ’90s he started calling himself “Dr. Email” in the company’s press releases.
In the middle of February, Shiva arrived in DC to hand over his e-mail documents to the Smithsonian. On February 17, the Post ran its glowing article about his work as a teenager and his plans for the post office. “Innovation actually demands freedom,” he told the paper, “and freedom demands innovation.” It wasn’t long, though, before serious questions were being raised about Shiva’s claims.
A few days after the Post article ran, Thomas Haigh received a disturbing e-mail from his wife. Haigh is a computer historian and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee who also chairs the Special Interest Group on Computers, Information and Society — a sort of Internet cabal within the Society for the History of Technology. The e-mail linked to an online discussion about the Post piece. Furious, Haigh immediately fired off an e-mail to his colleagues.
“Did you know that email was invented in 1978 by a 14-year-old called V.A.Shiva Ayyadura [sic]?,” a sarcastic Haigh wrote. “The shocking news was broken recently by the Washington Post.” Haigh then laid out a point-by-point takedown of Shiva’s claims. E-mail was created in 1978? “Mail features became common on the timesharing computers of the late 1960s,” the professor scolded. “MIT is a strong contender for the first place where this happened.” He went on to note that the first computer-to-computer message exchange took place over the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET—the Pentagon-funded underpinning of the modern Internet that enabled hundreds of computer programming students to access government-owned supercomputers from satellite sites across the country in the ’60s and ’70s. Citing Janet Abbate’s 1999 book Inventing the Internet, Haigh reminded the group that network mail was a “killer application” … in 1971.
Haigh lamented that the Post had been duped into believing that Shiva’s copyright for a program called “EMAIL” equated to the actual invention of e-mail. And he wasn’t the only skeptic. David Crocker, an early ARPANET user and the author of some of its most highly regarded messaging protocols, was forwarded the story by a friend, who warned: “This will ruin your day.” John Vittal, credited with creating the ARPANET’s MSG program, one of its most admired and heavily used messaging tools, was notified of the story by worked-up former colleagues. Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon’s Dave Farber, who’s been called “one of the most influential nerds in the United States,” sent Haigh’s response to the article to his “Interesting People” listserv of heavy hitters, tagging it “worth reading.”
Tech blogs quickly picked up on the chatter. Techdirt, a digital water cooler for geeks, excerpted Haigh’s e-mail, and linked to Shiva’s Wikipedia page, where the site’s editors were fighting over how to identify him. Gizmodo summed the whole thing up tidily, running a picture of Shiva’s face with a one-word question plastered across it: “Imposter?”
Shiva’s chorus of doubters had been young men — a fraternity of sorts — when they’d started using the ARPANET, and now here was some interloper they’d never heard of taking credit for their work. And the more these geeks, who saw themselves as the true fathers of e-mail, dug into Shiva’s story, the more enraged they became.
They quickly discovered the Time magazine article, in which Shiva dismissed earlier ARPANET messaging systems as rudimentary “text messaging” programs. They found that on August 31, 2011, Shiva had 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.” From there they uncovered 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.”
Haigh and his crowd wrote polite — though stern — missives to the Smithsonian and the Post explaining how their ARPANET work on e-mail predated Shiva’s. They littered the comments section of the Post and the Smithsonian websites with requests for corrections. The Smithsonian eventually backpedaled, issuing a clarification on February 24 stating that it had accepted Shiva’s EMAIL documentation not because he was the “inventor of email,” but because of his role in “computer education,” and of EMAIL’s use in “medical research.” That same day, Patrick Pexton, the Post’s ombudsman, shot off a blog post responding to the criticism the paper’s story was generating. “Who invented e-mail?” he wrote. “Crikey, I don’t know. Maybe Al Gore.” (It should be noted that if you’re attempting not to piss off a growing riot of computer scientists, this is probably not the best opening salvo.) Pexton defended the article, arguing that while journalists respect and value facts, they cannot subject all stories to the same scrutiny as academics under journal review.
Being dismissed by the ombudsman of a major newspaper served only to further enrage the geeks. “It totally energized our community,” David Crocker told me. Adds John Vittal: “There was a sense of anger at the reporter and the [Smithsonian] for allowing this nonsense to be promulgated. We wanted to get at the truth.” Haigh, for his part, penned a letter to the editor that eviscerated Pexton’s blog. “There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who could plausibly claim to have achieved some kind of significant incremental ‘first’ in the development of email,” he wrote. “On the other hand there are billions of people who clearly didn’t invent email …. Unfortunately for Pexton and the Washington Post, V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai is one of the billions …. ”
Pexton, suddenly realizing that he’d incited an Internet mob, published a follow-up blog post a few days later disavowing his earlier defense of the reporter’s work, apologizing for his own errors, and noting that, upon further investigation, Shiva “should not have been called ‘inventor of e-mail’ in the headline.” A lengthy and rather convoluted correction was added to the online version of the piece.
But the geeks still weren’t done. They e-mailed the faculty, staff, and trustees at MIT, where many of them had been during their ARPANET days. Why, they asked, was Shiva promoting himself on his website as the head of the MIT EMAIL Lab — which Shiva created to “invent innovative solutions for addressing challenges faced in the field of communication by today’s organizations”? Why, they demanded to know, was the Institute affiliating itself with someone of such questionable character? Within days, MIT told Shiva that it no longer wanted to be associated with the EMAIL Lab. Several MIT professors also gave off-the-record quotes to Gizmodo, calling Shiva an “asshole,” a “dick,” and a “loon.” The website also pointed out that Shiva had purchased more than 100 vanity URLs — DrEmail.com, EmailInventor.com, etc. — that redirected you to his personal website. Others noted he’d authored a book: The Internet Publicity Guide: How to Maximize Your Marketing and Promotion in Cyberspace.
It was crushing, humiliating stuff, but to the geeks, entirely warranted. “There is no inventor of e-mail,” Vittal says flatly. That may well be so, but Shiva is far from the first programmer to receive this kind of withering criticism. Computer pioneers are volatile, says Crocker, ARPANET’s protocol guru: “This is not a community that’s reticent with criticism.” Vittal, actually, knows that firsthand. Shortly after his MSG program began to be widely adopted by ARPANET users, he says, competing programmers scoffed at the notion that his work was anything revolutionary. They’d come down with a “case of NIH syndrome,” he explains. NIH? “Not invented here,” he says. In other words, “If I didn’t invent it, it doesn’t exist.”
(V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai photo by Miller Mobley)
It’s early March, just days after the Internet has gone ballistic, when I meet Shiva for the first time. We’re in his office on the MIT campus and he’s eager to talk, exuding the patience of a teacher willing to explain things to a perplexed student. Wearing a black T-shirt under a dark- brown corduroy jacket, he’s in constant motion as we speak, using a whiteboard, drawing sketches on a pad, and pulling up articles on his laptop.
No matter what anyone says, he tells me, his EMAIL program was the first of its kind.
The ARPANET, he insists, was not created for the purpose of messaging. That much is agreed upon. In the 1998 bestseller Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon write that the “network was intended for resource-sharing, period.”
Most credit Ray Tomlinson of Cambridge-based BBN Technologies with being the first person, back in 1971, to send messages between computer terminals (he used the “@” sign to create an address). Dozens of others built upon Tomlinson’s work, devising their own methods of sharing notes on the network. Shiva describes those earlier systems—the MSGs, SNDMSGs, and other ARPANET programs—as merely “hacks,” or the equivalent of simply sending text messages back and forth. His system, on the other hand, was invented specifically for the office environment, with secretaries, not computer scientists, in mind. It was elegant, comprehensive, and easy to use. He argues that this whole controversy is an example of elitist, ivory-tower institutions wanting to control the story of innovation. Perhaps, but isn’t Shiva sitting at this very moment in an office in an ivory-tower institution, from which he’s received four degrees? He tells me that this whole thing is a “malevolent narrative” created to attack him for being different. His critics simply can’t accept that something remarkable could come out of a medical and dental school in New Jersey, never mind the fact that it was done by a teenager born in India. “When I claim I did it, and I can speak well, and I don’t look like a nerd, that’s seen as PR,” he says, his voice rising in anger. “That’s what’s interesting. And Ray Tomlinson is called humble. I’m sorry, but Ray Tomlinson didn’t create anything — he created the @ sign. He has to be humble.”
Shiva explains that he grew tired of being humble about his own role in creating e-mail after spending time in India in 2009 working for a government agency there that helped inventors launch companies. He quickly found the agency rife with corruption: Patents were stolen, innovation was stymied, and scientists toiled for years without ever getting credit for their work. So he wrote a 47-page memo, “CSIR-Tech: Path Forward,” and e-mailed it to some 4,000 scientists. The memo opened, bizarrely, with a poem dedicated to the agency’s scientists, who dream “to become next generation of innovators/That great India so sorely needs/To break from draconian past/And vainglorious visions/Seeking press and limelight of ‘I.’” From there, he described an organization with a “culture of sycophants” that was prone to “deflections and cover ups.”
Shiva says he was fired three days after sending out the document, and was kicked out of government housing and had his e-mail account turned off. His offense was violating an Indian law against sending “slanderous” e-mails.
His memo did become international news, but not for the reasons he’d hoped. Scientists decried his unprofessional conduct. Government officials claimed he’d demanded a tremendous salary. He tells me that threats were made against his life, forcing him to sneak out of the country by way of Nepal. His marriage dissolved in the months that followed. “I’ve been through a lot,” he says, his voice catching.
He may have been defeated in India, he tells me, but he’s not going quietly this time. “If they want a fight, they’re going to get a fight,” he says. “A freaking big fight.” He says he and Chomsky are preparing op-eds, which are scheduled to appear in the Post alongside counter-point pieces from Thomas Haigh and David Crocker. “They think they own the story line,” he says. “Now after this fight, I’m laying all claims to it …. We can bring in a thousand historians and they will prove in my favor.”
Over the next several weeks, I have conversations with several historians (though not thousands), all of whom are quick to point out that history is rife with stories of feuds between inventors (Alexander Graham Bell famously — some would say suspiciously — submitted the patent for a telephone on the very same day in 1876 as fellow inventor Elisha Gray). “This is an incredibly common story,” Deborah Douglas, the curator of science and technology at the MIT Museum, says of Shiva’s claims. “There is not a significant invention that has not been accompanied by virtually identical narratives of dissent and disagreement.”
Shiva dismisses this line of reasoning, directing me to the work of Tim Wu, who teaches copyright and communications law at the Columbia Law School. Wu’s book The Master Switch posits that the critical media inventions of recent centuries were the work of “lone inventors” and that “many revolutionary innovations start small, with outsiders, amateurs, and idealists in attics or garages.”
In Wu’s work, Shiva sees support for his claim to being the one true inventor of e-mail. But while all the historians I spoke with were familiar with the history of messaging over ARPANET, none had heard of Shiva’s work prior to the controversy. When I ask whether Shiva could be the actual inventor, each of them can point to other programs that predate his system. For instance, Marc Weber, the founding curator of the Computer History Museum, tells me that “By modern standards, the number of people using electronic mail in 1978 was tiny, but the medium was getting mature.” By 1978, the year Shiva says he invented e-mail, the first spam message had already filtered through ARPANET channels, enraging the community. There were emoticons, mailing lists, and flame wars. “Nearly all of the features we’re familiar with today had appeared on one system or another over the previous dozen years,” Weber says. “I would not be surprised if, as a brilliant and motivated 14-year-old…he unknowingly reinvented many of the features of e-mail which had come before.”
Naturally, Shiva dismisses Weber’s opinion (and questions the depth of his knowledge). In fact, he claims Weber’s museum excluded him from its new e-mail history exhibit because he gave his papers to the Smithsonian instead. Throughout our many conversations, Shiva always pointed to his copyright in 1982 as the first time the phrase “e-mail” entered into the public domain: “If they were so brilliant or on top of it, why didn’t they call it e-mail?” he asks me one day. “They didn’t call it e-mail because it wasn’t e-mail.” (That too is debatable, as CompuServe was advertising a messaging program called Email as early as 1982.)
Shiva, in other words, is convinced that he fits the profile of Wu’s lone inventor. But does he? “Typically,” Wu tells me, “someone claims to have invented something before someone else, and their claim is to be the ‘actual’ inventor. In Shiva’s case, he claims that he invented something after it was invented, but just in a more profound way.”
Or, as Richard John, a communications historian at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, tells me, “If a bus had hit Shiva two years before he won the Westinghouse Prize, the history of e-mail would not have been changed a bit.”
It’s just moments before Shiva’s panel on “The Future of the Post Office” is about to begin at MIT, and he looks agitated. His brow is furrowed as he swivels his head, looking around the room. The truth is, I’m somewhat surprised, given all the controversy, that the Institute has gone forward with this event at all. Shiva’s detractors contacted several of the panelists, demanding that it be canceled to save the reputation of the school.
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.”
Shiva walks up to the podium, thanks Thorburn, and reiterates his statement. “This is not about me,” he says. The session goes off without incident. Williams, the post office’s inspector general, is on the panel, and so is Columbia’s Richard John. No mention is made of the controversy, and when the video is posted online, David Thorburn’s opening comments have been edited out.
When I visit Shiva at his Belmont home one afternoon a few weeks later, the rooms are devoid of personal effects, save for a suitcase in the living room that his mother, who died this past January, left him. It’s stuffed with his papers, prizes, and awards. Shiva is quiet, and he picks at his plate of food as he looks out the huge plate-glass windows of his dining room.
His life has begun to unravel. MIT may have gone ahead with his panel, but since then 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. And those op-eds he and Chomsky wrote never ran in the Post. Shiva says he’s angry at the media for succumbing to pressure from the geeks. He’s also angry at the MIT administration for failing to stand by him. He recently lashed out in an e-mail to William Uricchio, the director of MIT’s comparative media studies program: “My name is SHIT on the Internet. My institution simply let me get fucked, and walked away out of fear that their reputation was getting ruined by associating with a ‘fraud …. ’ You and other academics can have armchair discussions all day on the notion of ‘innovation’ versus ‘invention.’ There is no theory here — I created EMAIL. The facts are there.”
All is not lost for Shiva, though. The Postal Service has given Shiva a contract to continue sharing his ideas on e-mail management. But that’s done little to dampen his sense that he’s been wronged. So Shiva and his teaching assistant, Devon Sparks, have begun a quixotic quest to fight the institutional giants he says are attempting to “steal” his story. They’ve assembled a dossier of the attacks against him, and have examined every messaging program that existed prior to his own to demonstrate exactly how his system is unique. Shiva insists that Crocker, Haigh, and others have twisted the facts in an elaborate effort to make sure their version of history gets told. The way Shiva sees it, “Crocker is just a liar. They’re making stuff up on their websites.” Further evidence of the conspiracy came in late April, when the Internet Society announced that Ray Tomlinson was being inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame for his e-mail work. Shiva insinuates to me that the Internet Society created the hall of fame to further discredit him. It wasn’t until just this February, he points out, that the URL internethalloffame.org was registered.
At press time, Shiva and his attorney, John Bradley, were preparing letters to send to his detractors. “People are trying to reinvent how the Internet and e-mail came to us. And we can’t reinvent history,” Bradley tells me. “Very shortly, people will be put on notice, and we will give them all a chance to retract what they said.”
I call up Shiva’s sister, Uma Dhanabalan, a doctor in Seattle. “I worry about him,” she tells me. But she believes him, and believes the rest of the world will one day realize the truth. “Shiva is the name of the lord of creation and destruction in the Hindu religion,” she says. “And Shiva” — her brother — “is truly the creator. He will fight for destruction if it means fighting for justice. And he will die in that fight for justice, at any cost.”