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Posted at 03:31 PM ET, 03/01/2012

Origins of e-mail: My mea culpa

Updated 2:30 p.m.

Caw, caw, caw, crunch! That’s the sound of me eating crow. It’s not the most pleasant repast I’ve had — the feathers don’t go down so easy — but it is a necessary one.

I did a blog post this past Friday that was dismissive, snarky and wrongheaded, and had factual errors too. And I apologize to readers for it and I’ll try to repair some of the damage here.

My blog post was in response to e-mails that I, and Post Innovations editor Emi Kolawole, received denouncing her Feb. 17 story about a Massachusetts Institute of Technology instructor, who as a high school student in the late 1970s, developed, and later copyrighted, an electronic electronic messaging system. The story was headlined: “V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai: Inventor of e-mail honored by Smithsonian.”

I was upset at the harsh nature of some of these e-mails, and they came amid a heavy week of barbs and complaints about Post coverage — some of them merited, some of them not.

But sometimes people are upset because they have a legitimate beef, and then it’s my job to listen, and in this case I didn’t. I was too dismissive and came to the defense of Kolawole too quickly without doing enough checking myself.

These correspondents took such umbrage because they, in fact, do know a lot more about the origins of e-mail than I do, or Kolawole did, and they care deeply about the truth and who should get proper credit for such an important invention. And they care that The Post gets it right. I do too.

So let’s begin.

In this narrative, I’m going to hedge in a few places because Kolawole is still doing some extensive fact checking on her original story, and yes, she should have done more of that prior to publication.

But I think it’s safe to say that although Ayyadurai is an interesting fellow, and that, as a teenager, he did develop an early electronic messaging system for about 100 users at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and obtained a 1982 copyright for its computer code — he named the program, all uppercase, “EMAIL” — he should not have been called “inventor of e-mail” in the headline.

As so many distinguished experts in this field wrote to tell me — I’ll name them below — Ayyadurai is not the inventor of electronic messaging between computers, what we have all come to call e-mail. Electronic messaging was developed by many hands over many years, and probably began in the early 1960s, possibly as early as 1961, on people using time-shared computers.

E-mail was developed alongside early versions of the Internet, and was driven by scientists, researchers and users of the ARPANET, the early computer network associated with the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. One of the first Internet Request for Comments — an early paper memo circulated broadcast e-mail to ARPANET users asking for input on a “mail box protocol” went out in July 1971. Subsequent RFCs became the guideposts and user manuals for the developing e-mail system. The standardization of fields within e-mail — the “To,” “From,” “CC,” “BCC” etc. — seem to have begun with RFC-680 in 1975.

Ayyadurai may have used some similar conventions in his program for the New Jersey university and its satellite campuses — he began working on his in 1978 — but most all of them were used earlier by scientists and researchers on the ARPANET. Ayyadurai’s program was later, smaller and localized.

As the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, to which Ayyadurai gave documents about his early work, wrote in a second press release about Ayyadurai, wrote in its press release about him, after the original Post story on him was published, “Many innovations are conceived independently in different settings. Historians who have documented the early history of electronic messaging have largely focused on the use of large networked computers, especially those linked to the ARPANET in the early 1970s. Ayyadurai’s story reveals a contrasting approach, focusing on communicating via linked computer terminals in an ordinary office situation. The system was localized, linking only three campuses rather than multiple large institutions. It was a small enterprise, rather than a big enterprise story.”

Was Ayyadurai “honored” by the Smithsonian? Well if the Smithsonian’s acceptance of the donation of his early paperwork and computer coding on his “EMAIL” program is an honor, then he can feel so honored. But The Post should not have implied that he was being honored because he was the inventor of e-mail.

And some other sentences within Kolawole’s story, and in my subsequent blog post, went too far as well: “The Smithsonian has acquired the tapes, documentation, copyrights, and over 50,000 lines of code that chronicle the invention of e-mail. The lines of code that produced the first “bcc,” “cc,” “to” and “from” fields were the brainchild of then-14-year-old inventor V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai.”

Yes, the Smithsonian has acquired Ayyadurai’s materials, but the story should probably have said something like those materials “chronicled the development of Ayyadurai’s e-mail system used by the university in New Jersey.”

Based upon the materials submitted to me by recognized experts in this field, Ayyadurai’s e-mail system was not the first to use the “To,” “From,” “Bcc,” and “CC,” codes, although Ayyadurai might dispute that. Certainly, calling them his “brainchild” seems to slight all the other early computer networkers who also used them.

Now, the other part of Kolawole’s story that technology experts objected to is the conclusion that she drew — based on her interviews with Ayyadurai — that he was selfless in seeking copyright of his “EMAIL” system.

These are the two offending sentences: “By pursuing a copyright on his e-mail work, Ayyadurai opened it up for use, but with credit. Had he pursued a patent, it could have significantly stunted the technology’s growth even as it had the potential to make him in­cred­ibly wealthy.”

The technologists don’t like this for two reasons.

First is the idea of copyright and patent, and intellectual property law. The experts who e-mailed me said that computer software was generally not patentable in the late 1970s and early 1980s but became so later. Ayyadurai could not have patented his EMAIL program at that time even if he wanted to, they say. And copyrighting his program didn’t really have an effect on the ARPANET one way or the other.

More important to the technologists is that, according to them and others, most of the early developers of e-mail and the Internet did it in the hopes of creating a new system of information sharing that would make communication within their fields easier and more networked for the benefit of everyone. They, by and large, didn’t get a plug nickel for doing this and weren’t after money, copyrights or patents in the first place. They just wanted to be able to communicate quickly and exchange documents with fellow researchers in the Pentagon and at universities.

Here’s what Jim Kane, an economist who has worked with lots of technology firms, told me: “Technologists primarily are driven and motivated by recognition from their professional peers much more than by financial rewards. I strongly suspect that among all the individuals who responded to the original article there is not one among them who has financially benefited from the creation of e-mail to any significant degree.

“They would place greater value on an award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or recognition from the National Academy of Engineering than any financial bonus from their respective companies or organizations. It’s what makes them who they are and in many ways how refreshingly honest they are to work with.

“Conversely, when they see someone making a claim for professional recognition that is inconsistent with common knowledge within that professional community their reaction is immediate and particularly strong. It’s a violation of their core principles. I believe this is very much the basis of the strong response Kolawole’s original article has generated.”

I agree with Kane, and the experts’ reaction isn’t far different from a journalist’s who feels that his or her scoop was ripped off by rivals. Been there.

Now for the mistakes in my blog post. Overall, the tone was dismissive and I got some things flat wrong. I was sloppy and trying to write it up hurriedly on a Friday afternoon with too little attention to detail. And I did it after spending six hours writing my Sunday ombudsman column.

This paragraph I wrote, for instance, is wrong in several regards:

“We do know that the guy who copyrighted the terms ‘email’ and ‘e-mail’ and who developed and copyrighted some of the computer code and underpinnings of the modern versions of e-mail that we all use is an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai. And he did some of his e-mail work when he was 14, 15 and 16 years old, as a New Jersey high school student.”

The only thing we can say for sure about Ayyadurai is that he copyrighted a computer program called “EMAIL” that was used in New Jersey for a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We cannot say that his code was part of the underpinnings of the modern versions of email that we all use. He did develop his program as a teenager.

Nor can we say, as I did later in the blog post that “you can also argue that as the copyright holder to ‘e-mail,’ that in a sense, he invented this thing that we all have come to call e-mail.” No, I don’t think we can say that.

I also said “I think Kolawole did her due diligence for the story.” No, I don’t think she did, and nor did I. This has been a great learning experience for Kolawole, and she has been diligent in trying to repair her mistakes since it happened. She is young, is carrying a lot of responsibility for someone her age, and one of her direct supervisors recently left The Post, but she is not making excuses to me. I’m not making any either. I just didn’t do my homework.

Finally, I angered a lot of smart and well-meaning people with this paragraph:

“Why is it that scientists, academics, and some readers, think that journalists and newspapers should be like academic journals and peer review every sentence that appears in print? That has never been the standard at newspapers or magazines, and it never will be. They shouldn’t expect that.”

This was unfair on my part. If I had taken a couple of hours and really absorbed all of the e-mail complaints sent to me, and read through the Internet links sent to me by people who knew better than I about the origins of electronic messaging — and there are some great resources out there on this — I would have figured out that Ayyadurai was not the inventor of e-mail, and that Kolawole’s story needed some serious revision and correction. I apologize to the true inventors of e-mail for this mistake.

So how did this happen really, in a nutshell?

V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai is a clever man, with MIT credentials, and a good sense of public relations plus a P.R. firm working with him. A press release by that P.R. firm got a young reporter/editor interested in his donation of his “EMAIL” documents to a well-respected D.C. institution, The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. Kolawole’s interviews with Ayyadurai convinced her that he was interesting and worthy of a profile and online video interviews.

The ombudsman, me, after receiving complaints, talked to Kolawole twice about how she did the story, did some cursory research online and typed out a blog post that I now regret.

Going forward, here’s what The Post is doing. I’m doing this lengthy mea culpa to set the record straight. Kolawole has invited two experts, Thomas Haigh, a history of technology expert at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and Dave Crocker, one of the fathers of the Internet, to write their own pieces for The Post’s Innovations blog on the history of e-mail. And Ayyadurai is going to write his own piece on his early “EMAIL” program. Kolawole will also be revising her original piece to reflect the record accurately.

We hope that sets the record straight and gets The Post back to where it needs to be, on the side of truth and accuracy.

I want to thank these experts who helped me over the past week.

Geoff Carpenter, of FARGOS Development, who worked for IBM Research developing network management technologies for the Internet from 1988 to 1993.

• James A. Kane, the former CEO of the Systems and Software Consortium Inc., a group of federal contractors in the I.T. field, who started his career at the Internet pioneer, Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc.

• Peter Klosky, a software developer from Fairfax City, Va.

• Tom Moulton, an early user of the Electronic Information Exchange System

Stuart Umpleby, a professor in the Department of Management, and director of the Research Program in Social and Organizational Learning in the School of Business at the George Washington University.

Dave Crocker, one of the fathers of the Internet and of e-mail, of Brandenburg InternetWorking.

Emun Emin Gun Sirer, associate professor of computer science at Cornell University.

And here are some links to documents tracing the history of e-mail, written by some of the early participants:

The Technical Development of Internet Email by Craig Partridge

The History of Electronic Mail by Tom Van Vleck

Email history by Dave Crocker Bill Stewart

By  |  03:31 PM ET, 03/01/2012

Tags:  Media

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