Noam Chomsky disputes email history

The linguist argues that a former student of his invented email in 1978

Disputing a great deal of counter-evidence, famed cognitive psychologist and linguist Noam Chomsky insists that email was invented in 1978 by a precocious 14-year-old.

"The facts are indisputable," Chomsky wrote, in a statement issued Tuesday. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai invented e-mail in 1978 in New Jersey, as a part of a summer project to digitize an interoffice mail system for a hospital lab, Chomsky asserted.

Chomsky's comments follow a heated debate over the merits of Ayyadurai's claim, sparked in part by a Washington Post article that ran in February that also named Ayyadurai as the inventor of email.

Chomsky's argument is largely linguistic, noting that the term "email" was not used prior to Ayyadurai use of it. In 1978 Ayyadurai coined the word "email" to name the technology he created to electronically replicate an interoffice, inter-organizational mail system. Ayyadurai submitted his code to the U.S. Copyright Office, which awarded him a copyright on the term in 1982. Borrowing from inter-organizational mail systems, Ayyadurai also specified a number of features common to email systems today, such as inbox, cc:, forward, reply, address book, groups and return receipt.

However, most histories of the Internet point to electronic-mail systems being in place well before 1978, according to Internet historian Ian Peter.

The first electronic-mail systems resided on single multiuser computers, Peter noted. Then, the processing of electronically sending someone a message involved using a program that would place the message somewhere in the recipient's file directory where it could be read, often in a directory named mail. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Mailbox program offered this capability in 1965.

As computers were joined together on the Defense Department's DARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet, users needed a way to send messages among different computer systems. Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) engineer Ray Tomlinson created an address format in 1972 that would allow messages to be sent across DARPAnet to different computer systems. The address format, in use today, consists of a user name, followed by an at symbol, followed by the name of the computer or computer network. The system was in use by hundreds of DARPAnet users by 1974.

That BBN has claimed itself as the inventor of email has enraged Chomsky, who called the company's assertions "the childish tantrums of industry insiders. Despite Ayyadurai's coinage of the term email, few of those working on the DARPAnet had heard of Ayyadurai or his technologies, according to a recent article in Boston magazine.

Such controversies about the origins of technology are not new, and perhaps not surprising given the incremental and evolutionary steps that seem to be an inherent part of innovation. Earlier this year, Matthew Inman, who is the creator of the Oatmeal comic Web site and Forbes columnist Alex Knapp engaged in a heated Internet debate over whether or not Nikola Tesla invented alternating current, as well as his role in other inventions.

Chomsky is an institute professor and professor emeritus in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He served as an adviser to Ayyadurai, when Ayyadurai was a student at MIT in the early 1980s.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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Joab Jackson

IDG News Service
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