Corruption, Lies, and Death Threats: The Crazy Story of the Man Who Pretended to Invent Email
Shiva Ayyadurai, pictured above, is a shimmering intellectual. He holds four degrees from MIT (where he lectures), numerous patents, honors, and awards. He also says he invented email, and there's a global conspiracy against him. Guess which one of these statements is true.
In 1978, a precocious 14-year-old from New Jersey invented email. You can see him doing it in the photo at the top right of your screen?the kid glued to his monitor. In that picture, he's busy showing off his creation?a way for office staff to message each other via computer. As he's happy to gab to the Washington Post, which recently ran a profile of him, Ayyadurai was a teen wonder who invented the electronic messaging system with which we all communicate, back in 1978. Ayyadurai's collection of "historical documents" is now to be interred at the Smithsonian, the Post reported, laid gloriously on the pillar of American history alongside artifacts of Occidental Civilzation such as Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet, Thomas Jefferson's Bible, and a 1903 Winton, "the first car driven across the United States." Ayyadurai is about to become more than just a gifted programmer and Professional Smart Man, but a historical figure. All of this leading up to a plum book deal with Norton, proclaiming his place in history as the upstart inventor of email itself.
But why have you never heard of him? Probably because there's precious little evidence that Ayyadurai came remotely close to inventing email, beyond a few misleading childhood documents and a US Copyright form of dubious weight. This was enough to convince the Washington Post and Smithsonian? Before you could even finish the Post's ode, Emi Kolawole, the reporter behind the piece, issued a stumbling correction:
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.
Well, that's a rather different claim to fame entirely, isn't it? After we posted incredulously, Ayyadurai's PR rep was quick to rally us toward his cause?and the case was urgent. Not only was Ayyadurai desperate to set the record straight, but there was a tale of globalization and woe that explained the detractors. Ayyadurai wasn't being accused of lying about inventing email because hadn't invented it; he was the victim of international character assassination. This goes all the way to the top.
In 2009, Ayyadurai worked for the Indian government, helping to run CSIR, a national R&D incubator tasked with finding homegrown patents and turning them into national high tech moneymakers. According to Ayyadurai, the center, with its billions of dollars to spend, was as corrupt as you'd imagine an R&D incubator in a developing country would be. Dissent was verboten, patents were plagiarized, and the few ideas of worth were rounded up laid fallow. When someone tried to speak up, they were canned. Meanwhile, plush villas, fat salaries, and state-provided cars were doled out to scientists within the organization on the dime of the Indian people.
Ayyadurai couldn't sit idly by while this happened. He admonished his management in a letter he circulated within CSIR, calling for freedom of speech among colleagues. The Indian government clamped down immediately: He was banned from further communiques, promptly fired, evicted from his government housing, and urged to flee the country, lest his life and family be harmed. Phone calls of warning and threat were persistent, he says.