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History of E-Mail

  1. Background
  2. What is an E-Mail System?
  3. The First E-Mail System
  4. History of the First E-Mail System
    1. Early-Stage Development
    2. The Components of E-Mail
    3. The First E-Mail System
  5. References
Author: Matthew J. Labrador


Dr. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, an MIT alumni an Faculty member, developed the first E-Mail System in 1978. Many important and noted individuals contributed to various Components of an E-Mail System, such as electronic messaging protocols, programming languages, database systems and networking protocols. These early developments resulted in enabling the transaction of electronic messages using cryptic codes, only usable and understandable by computer engineers, nerdy students and scientists. No E-Mail System (with Inbox, Outbox, editor, etc.), however, existed with easy-to-use interface console, network-wide with a rich set of features, until, 1978, when Dr. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, then a precocious 13 year-old, invented the first E-Mail System, to enable medical doctors distributed network wide, across three locations in New Jersey, to send and receive E-Mail. The development of such a real E-Mail System was motivated largely because of the user base: medical doctors. Medical doctors, then and now, were/are perhaps the most unlikely to use and adopt computers. A recent Forrester Research report, states even today, medical doctors are the last to adopt E-Mail.

The first E-Mail System developed by Dr. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai contained nearly all the features of today's systems such as Gmail, Yahoo, etc. Nothing like this had existed before. The software he created was called E-Mail. The US Copyright Office granted the first copyright for "E-Mail" in 1981 to Shiva. E-Mail was user-friendly, network wide and a fully functional system that enabled medical doctors and their secretaries at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), to send and receive E-Mail. While few during that time knew the value of this first E-Mail System, the scientists and inventors of the Westinghouse Science Committee did. They recognized Shiva with an Honors award for inventing this E-Mail System in 1981. The Westinghouse awards are considered by many to be the "baby Nobels" awarded to young and new inventors and outstanding scientists.

MIT also realized the value of this invention, inviting Shiva to apply and accepting him, while featuring Shiva's innovation on the front-page of their incoming class of 1981 news story. I first met Shiva in 1981 in a computer science class, while reading that news story in the MIT newspaper Tech Talk. He was quite modest about all of this. With the growth of the Internet, after having seen various articles, on the "History of Email," I decided to do my own research and organize this article to provide readers with a more comprehensive and holistic history, leading to Dr. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai's development of the first E-Mail System.

This History provides a detailed review of the key milestones, in the Components of E-Mail System section, as well as the details of the history in creating the first E-Mail System. All of the contents below can be verified through the references.
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What is an E-Mail System?

First, this is an important question. The answer to which we take for granted, that billions of us use E-Mail Systems such as Gmail, Yahoo and others. An E-Mail System is characterized by the following attributes:
  1. Easy-to-Use (e.g. no need for cryptic codes that only a Geek can use)
  2. Rich set of features (e.g. Inbox, Outbox, Folders, Editor, Return Receipt)
  3. Network Wide (e.g. multiple servers, multiple users, multiple locations)
  4. Security Protocols (e.g. login with username and password )
  5. Enterprise Management (e.g. administrator control, cleanup, E-Mail management)
  6. Database and Archival (e.g. relational data structures to store messages, retrieve, sort, etc.)
Prior to 1978, various Components of E-Mail were in development, but these were not an E-Mail System that you or even grandma could use. There were methods to transfer messages from one computer to another. But the only people who could use that were rocket scientists and computer programmers --- no E-Mail System, however, existed.
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The First E-Mail System

In writing this History, I was amazed at the vision that Dr. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai had, even as a 13 year old, in developing that first E-Mail System. In reading the manual and reviewing his code, which he was gracious to make available to me, I noticed the following features of E-Mail that he developed starting in 1978:
  1. User-Friendly Interface. He had built a very easy-to-use friendly interface that even grandma could use. And, remember, this was developed at a time when the screen only supported 80 characters across the screen and 20 characters vertically. The Menu had the concept of Inbox, and Outbox allowed the user to Create a Message, Receive E-Mail, on-line Help, Broadcast Messages (early E-Mail Marketing), and the ability to contact the System Administrator
  2. A Rich Set of Features. The System offered the ability to sort and view the Inbox and Outbox, to create Folders, even the ability to send Registered Mail! The System provided an editor, the ability to save a Draft, Send and Receive Messages. It also offered settings for Retries if there were Network Issues. Messages could also be archived, stored and deleted. I could not find any features that we have today, except for the mouse and graphical user interface that was missing in this first E-Mail System.
  3. Network Wide. The System enabled users to be resident across three geographical locations, each of which had three different servers (nodes) and multiple users at each location, with their own computers, connected to the servers. Various checks and balances were put into this first E-Mail System for ensuring transaction of messages across locations e.g. if one server went down, what to do, when to resend, etc. Administrative tools and reports for managing network message transactions were part and parcel of E-Mail.
  4. Security and Login. This system assigned each person a Username and Password. Most importantly, one could be at different locations and get their E-Mail. Each of the different locations had access to the Master User and Password tables, so users could seamlessly move to different locations and access their E-Mail, something, which we take for, granted today.
  5. Enterprise E-Mail Management. Once such a system was built, many other administrative features were added, such as what to do if a person forgot their username and password, archival and retention policies, limits on how long an E-Mail message would be stored, when to clean up the system, etc. These were not always evident to the user, but on the back end of most systems such issues need to be addressed.
  6. Database and Archival. Any system is not a System without storage. This first E-Mail System incorporated emerging database technology in a relational data store to index messages, users, and sort and rapidly transact messages. The incorporation of such a sophisticated database structure provided the ability for this first E-Mail System to offer many of the Rich Features described above.
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History of the First E-Mail System

There are two parts to this history I've organized. The first part is the history of the development of the various Components of E-Mail. This first part is based on extant history, which many of you may have read in Googling 'history of E-Mail' on the Internet. The second part is the history of the First E-Mail System, and the various other E-Mail systems that came after E-Mail by Dr. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai.

Early-Stage Development

These early message transaction developments allowed one user to transact an electronic message with another user. They were command driven. This means that one needed to be a software programmer or a "geek" to know how to craft a cryptic code to send a message between two people. In short, there was no real E-Mail System that was User-Friendly and Network-Wide enabling ordinary people to have an Inbox, Outbox, and all the things we are familiar with E-Mail today that makes it easy for anyone to send and receive and E-Mail.

Early E-Mail allowed multiple users on one computer to leave each other messages, like a yellow sticky note. One user could leave a message by appending that message to a file, that was owned and accessible by the user, similar to having a notepad where people write notes to each other at the bottom, as a way for multiple users of a time-sharing mainframe computer to communicate. The exact history is not clear. But according to Tom Van Vleck, among the first systems to have such a facility were SDC's Q32 and MIT's CTSS. This capability was quickly extended to become network E-Mail, allowing users to pass messages between different computers. The early history of network E-Mail is equally unclear. According to Van Vleck, AUTODIN system may have been the first allowing electronic text messages to be transferred between users on different computers in 1966, but it is possible the SAGE system had something similar some time before.[i] Tom Van Vleck and Noel Morris developed Mail in CTSS at MIT for sending messages using the CTSS file system. This was before Ray Tomlinson's development (see below), so rightly Van Vleck says it is "exaggerating" to say Tomlinson invented E-Mail. Early email was just a small advance on what we know these days as a file directory - it just put a message in another user's directory in a spot where they could see it when they logged in --- simple as that. Just like leaving a note on someone's desk.[ii]

So while electronic mail transactions via file transfers on a single computer and across a computers (network E-Mail) existed before 1978, they were hardly an E-Mail System, given the characteristics aforementioned. Many components, beyond just being able to transfer messages across computers were necessary to build an E-Mail System. The history of these components is provided in the next section.
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The Components of E-Mail

1954 - John Backus develops the FORTRAN language for IBM [iii]

1960 - Charles Bachman invents database technology [iv]

1961 - Early message transactions through file sharing. MIT developed CTSS (Compatible Time Sharing System). Users passed messages using files on a central server. One user could log in create a file and another user would open that file and read the message. [v]

1961 - Leonard Kleinrock publishes "Information Flow in Large Communication Nets" describing the "Internet" [vi]

1962 - J.C.R. Liklider envisons the "galactic network" [vii]

1962 - Bob Bermer develops ASCII naming standard [viii]

1965 - The SNDMSG program was created to allow one user to leave an electronic message to another user by appending to a file.

1966 - AUTODIN and SAGE allow electronic text messages to be transferred between users on different computers.

1968 - Elmer Shapiro leads the Network Working Group at SRI [ix]

1968 - Paul Baran, Thomas Marill, Lawrence Roberts and Barry Wessler create Interface Message Processor specifications [x]

1968 - CPYNET developed to transfer files across computers

1969 - UCLA introduces Internet to the public [x]

1969 - First Internet Message is sent from Kleinrocks’s lab at UCLA [xi]

1971 - Ray Tomlinson offers features similar to AUTODIN and SAGE for network E-Mail, in his own implementation by copying CPYNET code into SNDMSG using @ symbol to indicate recipient.

1971 - Larry Roberts writes RD at ARPA to list incoming messages and support forwarding, filing, and responding to them. [xii]

1972 - Commands MAIL and MLFL were added to the FTP program (RFC 385) to provide standard network transport capabilities for email transmission. FTP sent a separate copy of each email to each recipient.

1973 - TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) developed by Vinton Cerf, Robert Kahn [xiv]

1973 - Ethernet is developed by Bob Metcalfe [xv]

1974 - Yogen Dalal and Carl Sunshinge Publish RFC 675 protocol [xvi]

1974 - Telenet is introduced as the first Internet Service Provider [xvii]

1975 - John Vital developed some software to organize email messages

1975 - DARPA program manager Steve Walker initiates a project at RAND to develop an MSG-like email capability for the Unix operating system.

1977 - Dave Crocker, John Vittal, Kenneth Pogran, and D. Austin Henderson collaborate on a DARPA initiative to collect various email data formats into a single, coherent specification, resulting in RFC 733.

1977-1978 - Crocker followed Dave Farber to the University of Delaware, where they took on a project for the U.S. Army Materiel Command (AMC) to develop a capability to relay email over dial-up telephone lines for sites that couldn't connect directly to the ARPANET. [xiv]

1978 - TCIP/IP was developed by Danny Cohen, David Reed and John Shoch [xviii]
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The First E-Mail System

1978 - V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai develops the first E-Mail System at UMDNJ that offers doctors at UMDNJ the ability to send and receive E-Mail in a user friendly network wide manner.

1979 - Development of E-Mail Maintenance and Management System

1980 - Development of User Manual

1981 - First US Copyright issued to V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai for E-Mail, world’s first E-Mail System that is User-Friendly, and Network wide features Inbox, Oubox, registered mail, broadcast, nearly all the features of modern E-Mail Systems, and easy-to-use, not for Geeks alone.

1981 - Westinghouse Science Committee [xviii]

1982 - Jon Postel develops SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) [xix]

1982 - Crocker revised RFC 733 to produce RFC 822, which was the first standard to describe the syntax of domain names.

1983 - Jon Postel, Paul Mockapetris, and Craig Partridge to support the Email addressing space, creating .edu, .gov, .com, .mil, .org, .net, & .int. [xx]

1985 - Development of "offline readers." Offline readers allowed email users to store their email on their own personal computers, and then read it and prepare replies without actually being connected to the network - sort of like Microsoft Outlook can do today. [ii]

1988 - Eudora developed by Steve Dorner [ii]

1988 - Vinton Cerf arranges for the connection of MCI Mail to the NSFNET through the Corporation for the National Research Initiative (CNRI) for "experimental use", providing the first sanctioned commercial use of the Internet.

1989 - The Compuserve mail system also connected to the NSFNET, through the Ohio State University network. [xiv]

1989 - MCI offers the connection of MCI Mail. It is initially provided to NSFNET through the Corporation for the National Research Initiative as an experiment. This offers the first commercial use of the Internet.

1990 - Compuserve offers its E-Mail, connected to the NSFNET, through the Ohio State University network. [xiv]

1991 - Lotus Notes is released

1993 - America On-line and Delphi offers global Internet Mail. Their solution makes it easy for an ordinary citizen to get an E-Mail account and use an E-Mail System

1996 - Microsoft Internet Mail and News was a freeware E-Mail and news client and ancestor of Outlook Express. Version 1.0 was released in 1996 following the Internet Explorer 3 release.

1997 - the program was changed and renamed as Outlook Express and bundled with Internet Explorer 4. The executable file for Outlook Express, msimn.exe, is a holdover from the Internet Mail and News era. Internet Mail and News handled only plain text and rich text (RTF) E-Mail, lacking HTML E-Mail. [xxi]

1999 - Blackberry
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  1. http://www.fact-index.com/e/e_/e_mail.html
  2. http://www.nethistory.info/History%20of%20the%20Internet/email.html
  3. http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/builders/builders_backus2.html
  4. http://www.softwarehistory.org/history/important_people.html
  5. http://www.multicians.org/thvv/mail-history.html
  6. http://www.isoc.org/internet/history/brief.shtml
  7. http://ecommerce.hostip.info/pages/741/Mit-Galactic-Network.html
  8. http://www.bobbemer.com/ASCII.HTM
  9. http://www.dei.isep.ipp.pt/~acc/docs/arpa--2.html
  10. http://www.computerhope.com/issues/ch001016.htm
  11. http://www.cs.ucla.edu/~lk/LK/Inet/birth.html
  12. http://www.packet.cc/internet.html
  13. http://www.livinginternet.com/e/ei.htm
  14. http://www.livinginternet.com/i/ii_kahn.htm
  15. http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventors/metcalfe.htm
  16. http://everything2.com/title/Transmission+Control+Protocol+%252F+Internet+Protocol
  17. http://www.computerhope.com/issues/ch001016.htm
  18. http://www.dremail.com/dr_email_inventor_history.asp
  19. http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc821
  20. http://www.ziplink.net/users/lroberts/InternetChronology.html
  21. http://www.nwnetworks.com/iehistory.htm
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V. A. Shiva
Inventor of the World's
First E-Mail System
Westinghouse Award, 1981
First US Copyright for EMAIL, 1982
US Patent, 2004
EchoMail - E-Mail Marketing, Relationship Management, e-mail management, e-marketing, ERMS            General Interactive: entrepreneur, business startup incubator, venture capital. Founded by V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai
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