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Sunday, 30 March 2014
How VA Siva Ayyadural invented email
Not many know that a 14-year-old Indian boy invented the
email. But it's time to change that narrative, VA Shiva Ayyadurai tells Amrita
Madhukalya while disclosing some of his ideas for the future.
It was a small step for the
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) but a giant leap for
mankind that was to forever change the way the world communicated. VA Shiva
Ayyadurai, only 14 years old in 1977, was hired to build an electronic
inter-organisational mail system – and from there was born email as we know it
today. Born in Mumbai in 1963, Shiva moved to the US at the age of seven.
It's the India connect that few
Indians are aware of. Thirty-seven years on, Shiva says it's time to change all
that. "Nobody knows that a 14-year-old Indian boy invented email. Maybe
it's time we change the narrative," Shiva, in India to promote his book
The Email Revolution, tolddna.
As far as inventions go, none is as
conflicted as Shiva's contribution to modern technology. There are many who
claim that Roy Tomlinson is the inventor of email, or that the ARPANet system
was the base for emails, and what Shiva did was just invent the interface. But,
over the years, people like Noam Chomsky and Deepak Chopra have come forward in
support of Shiva. He also graced the cover of Time magazine as the inventor of
email in 2011.
Shiva, now 51 and looking a decade
younger, lives in New York with his partner, actress Fran Drescher. "She's
a wonderful person, and I brought my New York flat just so that I could live near
her," he says.
Looking back, he remembers that it
all began with his interest in medicine. "I always had a deep interest in
medicine and, by the 9th grade, had studied all the math they taught till high
school. I learned calculus, which was taught in college then and wanted to drop
out of school. Then my mom introduced me to physicist Dr Leslie Michelson who
worked at UMDNJ. I was excited at the thought of learning medicine, but was
hired to work on email instead."
Shiva then went about the
departments studying the mail system. Each secretary had a desk on which was an
inbox for incoming mails, an outbox, a drafts folder, a trash bucket, an
address book, paper clips for attachments, bond paper and a typewriter. He then
wrote down 50,000 lines of coding in FORTRAN, the accepted coding language in
the late 1970s, to create the user interface and the work processor of what was
possibly the first email system. "FORTRAN allowed the use of only five
upper-case characters for the name of a program. So I zeroed on 'email',"
His invention landed him an award
and the bachelors programme in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),
from where he holds four degrees. He was also a Fulbright Scholar, was
nominated for the Lamelson-MIT student nominees and was student body president
When he invented the program, the
US did not have a law to protect his copyright. "The Copyright Law 1976
protected only music and literature," he recalls, adding that he bagged
the copyright only in 1981 after the amendment in 1980.
Shiva's first stint at MIT was cut
short because he bagged the first prize in a competition held by the White
House to take care of its emails. " Bill Clinton realised the power of
emails at observing people's opinions and categorised emails into 147 buckets:
death threats, education, public policy, healthcare etc. All these emails were
sorted manually to build a statistic on what people were thinking. Clinton
would get a bar graph of the number of emails under a particular subject which
served as a survey," says Shiva.
"They wanted me to come up
with a program to analyse these emails and I developed EchoMail, which is
widely used today for analysing emails for customer feedback by corporate
Nike, Oprah Winfrey and Calvin Klein have been EchoMail's clients. "There
have been many campaigns which have employed the analysis provided by EchoMail
over the years to come up with advertising strategies," says Shiva.
"Currently, we are working on a more affordable model of the programme so
that small business ventures can use it."
Shiva is excited about the
possibilities of studying behaviour through emails and rues that the US Postal
Department, on the verge of a shutdown, did not pay heed to his advice a decade
ago to adapt to email.
"I proposed that they offer an
email service for a nominal fee, because it was evident that email was soon
taking over. Also, no email service is free, so to speak. Ever organisation
that offers you free email, ensures that they retain ownership over the emails,"
When the announcement of its
shutdown hit the headlines, an outraged Shiva tweeted that they should have
listened to him. Publications took notice and he was soon contacted by the
Postal Department. "I worked on a solution to turn around the finances and
submitted my report, but I'm not sure if they have adapted to them," he
Shiva was instrumental in
revolutionising communication. Maybe, he will play an equally significant role
in determining the future of the US Postal Department.
Read also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiva_Ayyadurai
However, this claim has been contested by others:
I worked as a professional journalist for over three decades. I began as a sub-editor with Pune’s daily Sakaal (1969-70) and worked with United News of India (1971-87), The Indian Post (1987-90) and The Observer of Business and Politics (1991-2000). I shifted to academics in 2001 as Professor and Head, Department of Communication and Journalism (DoCJ), University of Pune. My doctoral thesis and later UGC-funded study was on web editions of Indian Newspapers. After retirement in 2007, I was at the Mudra Institute of Communications Research, Ahmedabad, for a year. Here we studied viewers of Aastha channel’s live telecast of Swami Ramdev Baba, Use of Internet for Loksabha elections, and features of mobile handsets. I have been associated also with University of Mumbai, University of Calcutta, North Maharashtra University, and Indira Gandhi National Open University. I became Adjunct Faculty and Research Co-coordinator at FLAME School of Communication, Pune, in December 2009. I am an adjunct faculty also at DoCJ, University of Mumbai. Here I am Principal Investigator of UGC-funded Major Research Project on Language of English Newspapers of India.