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OmBlog
Posted at 08:24 PM ET, 02/24/2012

Reader Meter: Who really invented e-mail?

Who invented e-mail? Crikey, I don’t know. Maybe Al Gore.

But to properly determine who did what in the multi-year, organic development of electronic messaging would take a fleet of patent lawyers months and years to sort out.

The early systems of electronic messaging through computers, it seems safe to say, were developed by a lot of government-funded scientists working mainly in the defense industry as early as the 1960s and 1970s.

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 Smithsonian decided to honor him in February, and take all of the documentation of his youthful work, and that’s why Post Innovations editor, Emi Kolawole, did an interview, story, and videos about him in the paper and on the Web site.

In so doing, she invited a cacophony of calumny on The Post, on her, and on Mr. Ayyadurai. Outraged scientists wrote blistering, uh, e-mails, to the ombudsman and to to Ms. Kolawole, and they posted nearly 100 online comments with the main Post story on Ayyadurai.

Most of them pointed out what I wrote at the top, that electronic messaging — being the generic and varied systems of communicating through computers linked by telephone lines — was not invented by Ayyadurai, and that The Post was pernicious, evil, irresponsible and unethical for suggesting so.

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.

Most reporters, and their editors, care very much about facts and do their research.

After the story is written, it gets a basic level of fact checking — more thorough at weekly and monthly magazines, less thorough at dailies, which are really now hourly, newspapers. And sometimes reporters get their facts wrong. And that’s why we have corrections.

I’m not advocating corrections or sloppy work — they inevitably degrade the credibility of any publication — but could you, as Ms. Kolawole did, do all this in one day? Write a story, edit seven videos, and write up a transcript of her Q&A session Ayyadurai?

Kolawole knew there was controversy about Ayyadurai before she interviewed him and wrote the story, but in her reporting she became convinced that his copyright on the words and some of the basics about modern e-mail were unchallenged.

So she wrote the headline “Inventor of e-mail honored by Smithsonian.”

You can argue, certainly, that Ayyadurai did not invent electronic messaging, but 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.

Still, Kolawole wrote and posted a clarification to her main story: “A number of readers have accurately pointed out that electronic messaging predates V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai’s work in 1978. However, Ayyadurai holds the copyright to the computer program called“email,” establishing him as the creator of the ‘computer program for [an] electronic mail system’ with that name, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.”

Kolawole also answered extensive e-mails from one of the outraged readers, Peter Klosky of Fairfax, who was persistent but polite.

I think Kolawole did her due diligence for the story, and she responded to the readers within a reasonable time frame. That’s all an editor can do.

She also has invited Ayyadurai and MIT to write a response to all the readers who wrote in to denounce the story. That also is an excellent way to address the dispute, and enhance the discussion. That will be appearing in coming days.

Finally, Kolawole said this:  “This is clearly something worthy of further discussion and we look forward to providing more information on this, both from Mr. Ayyadurai and MIT, and anyone else who would want to write about this. We want to explore this issue further and we welcome reader contributions.”

The Innovations blog at the Post publishes contributions from readers. And how e-mail developed is a fascinating story, probably worthy of a book. Have at it, readers.

 

 

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By  |  08:24 PM ET, 02/24/2012

Tags:  Media, Science, The Washington Post

 
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