[SIGCIS-Members] What is unusual about the email dispute.

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Thu Sep 4 11:27:36 PDT 2014

Those are interesting parallels, and certainly indicate a public need to put a single inventor next to each technology. So “Who invented X” becomes the one and only question that attracts a broad audience to an aspect of the history of technology.


However I do think that something a little out of the ordinary is going on here. The various candidates for inventors of the “first computer” had each done something or other first, and the question was which one deserved the grand prize. That came down to trying to define “computer,” which was clearly subjective, and so a set of hyphenated qualifications such as “general-purpose electronic digital” were agreed on and everyone left with some kind of prize in the goody bag. If people care enough to argue and gather documents until the different contributions are pinned down then something similar is likely to happen with ATMs.


What is exceptional about Ayyadurai is his insistence to have invented something many years AFTER the date range during which historians agree it was invented. Also the slickness of his public relations campaign and its stubborn disconnection from reality. His efforts to blame all doubt on corporate lies, racism, and class prejudice are also unusual.


Like this incredible Huffington Post video. It features the man himself, his father, his girlfriend (“The Nanny”), her dog, and several of his supporters and is clearly in the “fawning celebrity profile” genre. Most questions come down to variants on “How amazing does it feel to have invented email.” http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/third-metric-thrive-on-live-anniversary-of-email/53eba081fe34448278000107 Huffington Post apparently claims that none of this was paid for, but it reminds me of nothing more than a late night infomercial. 


By the way, the SIGCIS page is quoted from extensively in the latest TechDirt debunking article. Mike Masnick there has really been doing a good job of staying on top of this. https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140903/18514728409/huffington-post-finally-responds-stands-its-completely-bogus-totally-debunked-history-email-series.shtml 


Best wishes,



From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [mailto:members-bounces at sigcis.org] On Behalf Of Bernardo Batiz-Lazo
Sent: Thursday, September 04, 2014 12:44 PM
To: Andrew Meade McGee
Cc: sigcis
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Why is HuffPost publishing another "invention of email" series?


Thanks to Barbara and Andrew for their provocation.


My research on cash machines faces the same issue, with sources attributing a single inventor to John Sheppard-Barron (BBC & Wikipedia), Don Wetzel (Smithsonian), Luther Simjian (MIT) and James Goodfellow (UK Intellectual Property Office). 


I've tried to reason with each and all of them showing  original research that the ATM was a complex technology and there was more than a single individual involved. My experience is that the managers of the information are reluctant to change it if there is any shred of evidence to support their claim. 


So to Andrew I would respond that it is not only the preference for simplicity but also the costs of "saving face" after a retraction.



Bangor University (Wales)
Sent from my iPad

On 4 Sep 2014, at 15:48, Andrew Meade McGee <amm5ae at virginia.edu> wrote:

I'm glad Barbara raised the issue of misattribution. It's something I was mulling over yesterday afternoon while this e-mail thread was percolating. Like Paul, I was reminded of the Atanasoff debate. 


I'm curious, though, and I'm sure many on the list have given this thought, why the impulse within the media and the general public to seek out specific "founders" or "firsts" with regard to technology, and if the answers are muddled or messy or not inclined to point ot a single finger, why is there a willingness to embrace shoddy claims just for the sake of having a representative "creator" figure? It seems as though some fields and industries are particularly prone to this, and I wonder if computing is one of these? 


In this case their are obvious publicity and pecuniary benefits to being accorded the honor in the mind of the public as the "creator" of e-mail. (And residual benefits to those associated with individuals identified as key founders of technology. I'm sure Newark and Rutgers would not mind having Ayyadurai labeled the originator of such a ubiquitous technology by the public.) I guess what I don't understand is why the public seems so prefer the story of a single genius inventor, with a technology emerging fully formed, over the incremental evolution resulting from the input of several persons and groups (as is the case with the true development of electronic mail). 


Is it our impulse as humans to prefer a story? Our preference for simplicity over complexity? A desire to have particular humans rather than social process refine technology? I really don't understand the motivation to rally around a single claimant with a strained claim over a multifaceted history of a technology's formulation when it seems clear the latter is true. 


When you consider the fascinating Al Gore incident, when it became a staple of late night comedy, talk radio, and general zeitgeist, the joke was political or personality driven: the hubris or absurdity of a politician having created the internet. The dissonance in the popular imagination was with the idea of Gore as creator, not that something as large as "the internet" could have a single creator. 


Am I alone in my puzzlement? 



-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Andrew Meade McGee
Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
PO Box 400180 - Nau Hall
Charlottesville, VA 22904


On Thu, Sep 4, 2014 at 9:20 AM, Ceruzzi, Paul <CeruzziP at si.edu> wrote:

I am showing my age, but I've lived through a few of these--too many. Some of you may remember the Atanasoff-ENIAC controversy, which overflowed into a fuss over the labels in the Smithsonian's "Information Age" exhibit. And the books written by Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley, Alice and Arthur Burks, et al. I can supply unpleasant details, but perhaps best off-list. When I mentioned this to Mel Kranzberg, he said, "Hey, people are still fighting over whether Newton or Leibniz invented the calculus!"

Paul E. Ceruzzi, Chairman
Division of Space History, MRC 311
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
PO Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012

-----Original Message-----
From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [mailto:members-bounces at sigcis.org] On Behalf Of Andrew Russell
Sent: Wednesday, September 03, 2014 6:54 PM
To: Coopersmith, Jonathan
Cc: sigcis
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Why is HuffPost publishing another "invention of email" series?

Hi folks -

To be clear, I agree with Jonathan (and others) who pointed out Gore's important role in networking history.  I think we can also blame Gore a little bit for using a clumsy turn of phrase in his CNN interview, which gave an opportunity to his political opponents who wanted to portray Gore as a liar.

I found one article that Jonathan mentioned - "But Al Gore Did Help" - at  http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2000-10-26/news/0010250556_1_patron-new-technologies-internet.  In it, Jonathan gave us a clear, fair, high-level summary: "Gore's early initiatives helped shape the Internet into a more open and universal system with more access to federal and university databases than it would have otherwise."

In addition to Jonathan's piece, anyone teaching about this topic should know about Seth Finkelstein's page of articles and resources: http://www.sethf.com/gore/

The point I was trying to make in my earlier note is that this "invention of email" controversy (if we can call it that) resembles the Gore/invention "controversy" in that the consensus opinion of subject experts is dismissed, or deemed part of a conspiracy!  The facts and evidence are well-known; yet journalists and others with opaque or questionable motives ignore them, or twist them.

I'm reminded of the way that climate skeptics and creationists "teach the controversy," which is a strategy to destabilize the overwhelming consensus of specialists and experts.  That topic gives me the same irritated sensation I felt when I read the new HuffPost/email series, which is the same type of irritation I feel when I tell people that I write about Internet history and they say "you mean how Al Gore invented it? heh heh."

I hope somebody writes a biography of poor Al Gore that explains how Gore did such earnest and productive work with his advocacy of networking and climate change research, but found himself at the butt of jokes and public ridicule.



This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org, the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. The list archives are at http://sigcis.org/pipermail/members/ and you can change your subscription options at http://sigcis.org/mailman/listinfo/members


This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org, the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. The list archives are at http://sigcis.org/pipermail/members/ and you can change your subscription options at http://sigcis.org/mailman/listinfo/members

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/attachments/20140904/59ad4cd7/attachment-0001.htm>

More information about the Members mailing list