Article shared with Intent by VA Shiva Ayyadurai
Celebrate the Power of Intent on the Anniversary of Email’s Invention
August 30 marked the anniversary of the invention of email, created by a 14-year-old boy in 1978. His name is VA Shiva Ayyadurai, an Indian-American immigrant, and he is the inventor of email.
The power of intent is what allowed that young boy, in 1978, working in Newark, NJ, to create email — the same power that created the light bulb, the phone, the airplane, and everything we see around us.
The journey of that 14-year-old provides a wonderful example of that power of intent, and what can occur when intent exists, and when it does not. Today, at the age of 49, I want to share that boy’s story, because it is no longer my story, it is everyone’s story who cares to see a better world where all of us have an equal chance to express our power to create and innovate — activities, which I believe are the ultimate expression of the life force within all of us.
Prior to 1978, There Was No Intent to Create Email
Prior to 1978, email did not exist. Email did not exist because the intent to create email did not exist. In fact, most researchers and inventors at big institutions thought it was impossible to create email, so they did not even make an attempt.
This lack of intent is crystal clear, expressed unequivocally in the RAND Report, written on December of 1977, which summarized the state of the art of research in electronic text messaging:
At this time, no attempt is being made to emulate a full-scale, inter-organizational mail system. The fact that the system is intended for use in various organizational contexts and by users of differing expertise makes it almost impossible to build a system which responds to all users’ needs. (Crocker, D., December, 1977)
The “inter-organizational” or the interoffice mail system was the system used by nearly every office in the world to receive, process and transmit paper-based communications.
This was a complex system of interconnected parts consisting of the now familiar Inbox, Outbox, Folders, Files, Address Book, the Memo (“To:”, “From:”, “Subject:”, “Date:”, “Cc:”, “Bcc:”), Attachments, Return Receipt, Forwarding, Composing, Sorting, and much more, we see in modern email systems. CEOs, secretaries, accountants, and a variety of staff with differing expertise used this system, without which any office could simply not operate.
Prior to 1978, dating all the way to the Morse code telegraph of the 1800s, people were intent on creating systems for the simple exchange of text messages, like SMS, instant messaging, early predecessors of Twitter using the “@” symbol. There was, however, no intent “to emulate”, the interoffice mail system.
Intent Leads to the Creation of Email
In the summer of 1978, 14-year-old Shiva had just completed an intensive immersion program at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University (NYU), where he learned seven computer programming languages, including FORTRAN. Following this, he was bored and was planning on dropping out of high school, much to the concern of his parents Vellayappa and Meenakshi Ayyadurai.
His mother, intent to see her son stay in school, realized he needed to be challenged. She introduced him to Dr. Leslie P. Michelson of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), located in Newark, NJ.
Dr. Michelson provided Shiva a challenge: Create the electronic version of the interoffice mail system then in use at UMDNJ. This was something that researchers had found “impossible” and had made “no attempt” to pursue.
This challenge became Shiva’s intent and obsession. From this intent, Shiva envisioned an electronic system, which would contain all parts of the interoffice mail system. He envisioned a system that would be easy-to-use, so people of “differing expertise” could transition from typewriter, paper memos and files, to an electronic equivalent.
Using the FORTRAN language, he wrote 50,000 lines of code to create that system. What emerged in 1978 was the first version of this system. He called this system, “email”, a term that had never been used before, and was not so obvious then.
In 1980, the Copyright laws were amended so software inventions could be protected. Shiva applied in 1981. On August 30, 1982, he was awarded the first US Copyright for “email”, “computer program for electronic mail system.”
August 30, therefore, is the official anniversary of the invention of email.
The Reaction to the Power of Intent
For some, the power of intent can be threatening, for it demonstrates that creation can occur anytime, anyplace by anybody, beyond the control of a few.
On February 16, 2012, Shiva’s papers, computer code, artifacts, demonstrating the invention of email were accepted into the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) at a special donation ceremony.
Following the Smithsonian ceremony, industry insiders, including those who had forgotten they had authored the RAND Report, unleashed a series of vicious attacks. For over 30 years, Shiva neither attempted to profit from nor promote his invention. When the Smithsonian news came out, industry insiders were threatened.
Starting in early 2000, these industry insiders supportive of Raytheon/BBN, a multi-billion dollar defense contractor, had begun to rewrite history that their work in electronic text messaging, created prior to 1978 was “email”. The purpose of this was to ensure their place in history, as well as to create a false brand as “inventors of email,” which would guarantee them lucrative cyber-security contracts in a highly competitive industry.
However, facts are facts. Email, the electronic version of the interoffice mail system, which Shiva created, and the term “email,” he coined, did not exist prior to 1978.
Experts and insiders cannot simply alter the facts by shouting louder, because it is to their benefit.
Celebrate the Invention of Email
As Noam Chomsky reminded everyone during the height of the attacks on Shiva last year:
The efforts to belittle the innovation of a 14-year-old child should lead to reflection on the larger story of how power is gained, maintained, and expanded, and the need to encourage, not undermine, the capacities for creative inquiry that are widely shared and could flourish, if recognized and given the support they deserve.
As we reflect on the anniversary of the invention of email, let us celebrate the facts of that 14-year-old boy’s creation in 1978, which are now here for all us to understand and to reflect upon. For in doing so, we celebrate our children and ourselves.
This celebration is particularly needed in today’s world, where we need to move beyond old and false narratives, that only a few, in big institutions, large universities and big companies, can create.
His journey is ultimately our journey.
Celebrate the anniversary of the invention of email!
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VA Shiva Ayyadurai, Ph.D., the inventor of email, is a systems scientist, inventor, author, and entrepreneur, who holds four degrees from MIT and is a Fulbright Scholar, Lemelson-MIT Awards Finalist and Westinghouse Science Honors Award recipient. In 1978, at the age of 14, he invented email, the electronic version of the interoffice email system, while working as a research fellow at the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), now Rutgers Medical School, in Newark, NJ. In 1993, he invented EchoMail, a technology platform for managing large volumes of inbound customer service email as well as for outbound marketing email. In 2003, he invented CytoSolve for mathematically modeling complex molecular pathways of the human cell, towards providing a new in silico paradigm for drug development. As an educator, he has created Systems Health a new curriculum for medical practitioners that integrates eastern and western systems of medicine, and teaches Systems Visualization at MIT. He serves on the Board of several companies and is also the founder of Innovation Corps, a project of the not-for-profit International Center for Integrative Systems, which aims to provide a new vehicle for youth to convert their ideas to innovations and tangible businesses.