[SIGCIS-Members] "Inventor of Email" campaign targets Ray Tomlinson, "racist" journalists, reality

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Tue Mar 8 08:38:25 PST 2016

Thanks Chris,


I certainly agree that the history of computing should be engaging with issues of race, challenging narrow ideas of what constitutes “innovation,” moving beyond “firsts,” looking for non-elite contributions, etc. In fact I’m doing some of those things right now in reinterpreting ENIAC history and the recent “Maintainers” initiative shows a broad interest within SIGCIS in these approaches.


The problem is that Ayyadurai is a terrible basis on which to broaden our concept of anything. His public relations campaign is intended to make himself the sole inventor of email and it rests on the systematic misrepresentation and distortion of many aspects of history – denial of evidence, changes to his own claims over time, bizarre definitions, etc. According to his website and book “Email has a single inventor. That inventor of email is VA Shiva Ayyadurai. For nearly a decade, Raytheon's subsidiary, BBN, has been falsely promoting that it hosts the "inventor of email", referring to their employee Ray Tomlinson.” His more recent shift of emphasis towards allegations of racism against journalists and historians who refuse to recognize him as the “single inventor” of email is great public relations, but in my view it does a disservice to actual victims of racism. (NB: that’s not to say he hasn’t faced racism in life, merely that this is not the primary reason for skepticism towards his claim to be the sole inventor of email).


Best wishes,




From: Members [mailto:members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org] On Behalf Of Christopher Leslie
Sent: Tuesday, March 08, 2016 10:16 AM
To: <thaigh at computer.org> <thaigh at computer.org>
Cc: members at sigcis.org
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] "Inventor of Email" campaign targets Ray Tomlinson, "racist" journalists, reality


Dear Tom, 


I understand your claims well. It does not take a lot of digging to realize that electronic messaging was part of timesharing systems ... and if one has an open mind, the point-to-point messaging from Teletype can be seen as an important antecedent as well. I also understand that journalists on a deadline might not be interested in doing this research, so they might need our help.


Nevertheless, in a time when the professions are trying to encourage an inclusive atmosphere, I think as a group we could be more open to Drescher  and Ayyadurai's commentary. It is a demonstrable fact that STEM as a whole is demographically tilted to white and Asian men and the history of technology as a field often has a bias toward mainstream U.S. figures. While we might be "right" in asserting that email has a long trajectory, like the ubiquitous story of the bicycle, there is a different battle waging around us. If SIGCIS is insensitive to this critique, we run the risk of being on the wrong side of history. 


Al Gore chose his words badly in 1999 when he said he took the initiative to "invent" the Internet. Yet, many Internet luminaries took the initiative to defend Gore and say that he helped provide a new vision for what the Internet could be. Other examples could be cited. I recognize that Ayyadurai's contribution is more modest in scope and less widespread in influence, but it does no one any harm to say that he like many others saw the potential for what email could become. 




On Tue, Mar 8, 2016 at 10:56 AM, Thomas Haigh <thaigh at computer.org <mailto:thaigh at computer.org> > wrote:



Perhaps predictably, Ray Tomlinson’s recent death has prompted a new publicity push by Shiva Ayyadurai, the self-proclaimed “inventor of email.” (Backstory at http://www.sigcis.org/ayyadurai). Here are some recent tweets from his wife Fran Drescher, best known as “The Nanny”: “Thank you. Raytheon are plagiarists and liars. Big biz w/o integrity! The worst of the worst! Low roadsters,” and “PO'd! Ray Tomlinson WRONGLY credited 4 email whn EVERY1 honest knos Shiva Ayyadurai  <https://twitter.com/va_shiva> @va_shiva invented, has copyright &is a victim of racism.” Also “Th larger issue is the oppression of people of color. There is a narrative in America that white washes innovation. That's the real issue!” Ayyadurai himself has tweeted “White journalists since 2012 have joined in the lynching and whitewashing of facts on  <https://twitter.com/hashtag/email?src=hash> #email. I challenge all and any to a f2f debate !!”


The new push is reported in a Fortune blog piece, http://fortune.com/2016/03/07/who-really-invented-email/, which quotes SIGCIS at length. (I like its description of us as “an organization comprised of many prominent Internet historians and college professors” rather more than the “internet cabal” description used by Boston Magazine).


Ayyadurai seems to be getting almost entirely uncritical coverage in leading Indian publications, including


*         http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/who-invented-email-ray-tomlinson-or-shiva-ayyadurai/article8323987.ece

*         http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/On-Mahashivaratri-email-pioneer-Shiva-Ayyadurai-prays-for-recognition/articleshow/51297305.cms

*         http://indianexpress.com/article/technology/tech-news-technology/the-inventor-of-email-is-still-alive-says-india-born-scientist/


There’s a somewhat more nuanced, but still not entirely accurate, report (quoting SIGCIS) at http://thewire.in/2016/03/08/did-shiva-ayyadurai-invent-email-it-isnt-simple-and-youre-probably-missing-the-point-24149 <http://thewire.in/2016/03/08/did-shiva-ayyadurai-invent-email-it-isnt-simple-and-youre-probably-missing-the-point-24149/#disqus_thread> . 


So there’s fascinating story of historical techno nationalism developing here, in that Ayyadurai’s new focus on alleged racism as the only reason for disputing his claim to have invented email seems to be enough to win him widespread acceptance in India despite the obvious reality-based problems with claiming to have invented something that was already in widespread use.


Best wishes,




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Christopher S. Leslie, Ph.D.

Co-Director and Lecturer, Science and Technology Studies

Faculty Fellow in Residence for Othmer Hall and Clark Street

Vice Chair, IFIP History of Computing Working Group 9.7


NYU Tandon School of Engineering 

5 MetroTech Center, LC 131

Brooklyn, NY 11201

(646) 997-3130

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