Friday, August 29, 2014

Inventor of E-Mail

VA Shiva Ayyadurai (Tamil: சிவா அய்யாதுரை was born on 2 nd December 1963 in Mumbai, India to a Tamil family) is an Indian-American scientist, inventor and entrepreneur.

At the age of seven, he left with his family to live in the United States. In the Summer of 1978, then a sophomore in high school was accepted to a gifted students summer program at the prestigious Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences of New York University (NYU) to study computer programming, and later went on to graduate from Livingston High School in Livingston, New Jersey.

As a high school student in 1978, he was offered a position as a research fellow at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) as a research fellow, to develop the world's first Email System. He developed a full-scale emulation of the interoffice mail system, a computer program, which replicated the features of the inter-organizational paper mail system, which he called "EMAIL" and copyrighted later. That name's resemblance to the generic term "email" and the claims he later made for the program have led to controversy over Ayyadurai's place in the history of computer technology

Shiva filed an application for copyright in his program and in 1982 the United States Copyright Office issued a Certificate of Registration, No. TXu-111-775, to him on the program. He went on to be recognized by the Westinghouse Science Talent Search for this innovation, at a time when few knew of the value of email.

As required by the Regulations of the Copyright Office, he deposited portions of the original source code with the program. Prominent in the code is the name “EMAIL” that he gave to the program. He received a second Certificate of Registration, No. TXu-108-715, for the “EMAIL User’s Manual” he had prepared to accompany the program and that taught unsophisticated user’s how to use EMAIL’s features.

His undergraduate degree from MIT was in electrical engineering and computer science; he took a master's degree in visual studies from the MIT Media Laboratory on scientific visualization; concurrently, he completed another master’s degree in mechanical engineering, also from MIT; and in 2007, he obtained a Ph.D. in biological engineering from MIT in systems biology, with his thesis focusing on modeling the whole cell by integrating molecular pathway models. In 2008, he was awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant to study the integration of Siddha, India’s oldest system of traditional medicine, with modern systems biology in India.

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'," he says.

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 at MIT.

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 houses" 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," says Shiva.

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 says.

Shiva was instrumental in revolutionising communication. Maybe, he will play an equally significant role in determining the future of the US Postal Department.

Recently however, a substantial controversy has arisen as to who invented email. This controversy has resulted in an unfortunate series of attacks on Shiva. Part of the problem is that different people use to the term to mean somewhat different things.

- See more at: v.a.shiva-inventor-of-email