Whatever his achievements, Shiva Ayyadurai has plenty of admirers and detractors alike.
He’s been variously called a ‘charlatan’, a ‘fraud’, a ‘genius’ and has received glowing endorsements by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Amitabh Bachchan.
Now, after years of trying to convince techies in the US that he is the child genius who invented what billions of us now know as ‘Email’, the Tamil Nadu-born, Indian-American scientist is bringing his promotional campaign to his native India: a country quick to embrace sons of the soil who have done well out west.
Ayyadurai first came to prominence in 2011 when he told Time magazine that he had ‘invented email’ as a 14-year-old student he was interning at a medical school in New Jersey.
Whilst some championed Ayyadurai – including Indian-American lifestyle guru Deepak Chopra – others, particularly in IT industry, were outraged.
They pointed to the creation of the ARPANET, a forerunner to the Internet, which was devised by scientist Ian Tomlinson nearly a decade before Ayyadurai’s claimed invention.
ARPANET had enabled users on different computers connected to it to send messages to each other. The system was also the first to use the ‘@’ symbol to identify the computer from which each message originated.
Mr Ayyadurai’s, who holds multiple degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said however, he had copyrighted the term ’email’ in 1982 but didn’t patent it because it was not possible to patent software programs at the time.
Now he’s published a book dismissing Tomlinson’s achievements and says he is taking his message to the public – specifically his adoring Indian public – rather than to technology specialists.
The book is the latest in what is largely a one-man campaign to promote the idea that a precocious teenager from New Jersey invented email.
He’s given numerous interviews to some of the biggest newspapers in the world and has even proffered up a vast collection of documents which establish beyond a doubt, according to him, that the ubiquitous email is his invention.
Soon after his first claim to Time magazine, the venerable Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC even offered to place the documents – including newspaper clippings and (paper) memos requesting him to create a system to send electronic messages between computers with subject, text as well as receiver and sender details.
However, after outraged techies protested en masse, the Smithsonian backed down, sparking much protestations by Mr Ayyadurai.
His PR people also went into overdrive, describing attacks on his credibility as ‘racist’ and an ‘international conspiracy’ to ‘assassinate his character’.
Before exploring his battle for a piece of technology history, let’s go back in time.
Born to Tamil parents in Bombay, Ayyadurai and his family arrived in the US when he was all of 7.
He’s clearly a bit of a ‘Meter’ as they say in the south of India.
After graduating High School, he won a scholarship to MIT gaining a Bachelor’s in electrical engineering and computer science. He then took a Masters in Visual Studies and another Masters in mechanical engineering, both frmo MIT.
In 2007, he obtained a Ph.D. in biological engineering from MIT in systems biology.
In 2009, Ayyadurai was enlisted as a consultant to India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which promotes the use of indigenous technologies and resources to tackle technology shortfalls in India.
But the Indian-American Ayyadurai found CSIR a chore alleging the organization was corrupt and bemoaning its blatant patent plagiarization and largesse.
He sent out a memo which was circulated throughout the organization calling for dissenting voices to be heard and for an infusion of professionalism.
Professionalism? The Indian government would have none of it. He was banned from making any such further communications, fired and thrown out of his government-sponsored house.
Ayyadurai fled and returned to MIT where he set about righting what he thought was a wrong: that his name was not forever linked with email like that of Tim Berners Lee with the Internet.
Ayyadurai claimed that his journey to invent email began in 1978 when he learned the computer code FORTRAN 4 at a summer course at New York University.
During the summer of 1979, he got himself an internship at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey where his mother worked as a data systems analyst.
A colleague of Mrs Ayyadurai, Les Michelson, had been in charge with automating research at the hospital’s laboratories and invited the young Ayyadurai to help with the project.
Ayyadurai says he spent nights and weekends for the next two and a half years at the hospital and, using computers connected through a localized server, created a tool that gave hospital workers a digital mailbox where they could exchange messages and attachments.
He called the system EMAIL.
He is even said to have written in a submission to a talent competition: “One day, electronic mail, like Edison’s bulb, may also permeate and pervade our daily lives.”
Before later enrolling at MIT, Ayyadurai registered a copyright for his EMAIL program.
Fast forward to 2012 and the first newspaper to run Ayyadurai’s extraordinary story is the Washington Post.
A few days after the Post article appeared on 17 February, a renowned computer historian named Thomas Haigh rebuked the claims, telling his colleagues that email features became common on timesharing computers of the late 1960’s.
He also brought up the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET — the Pentagon-funded program which had witnessed the first computer-to-computer message exchanges.
Haigh said the Washington Post had been led to believe that Ayyadurai’s copyright for a program called “EMAIL” equated to the actual invention of e-mail.
Haigh was one of a number of people now ridiculing Ayyadurai’s claims. Early users of the ARPANET balked.
Tech blogs quickly picked up on the chatter. Gizmodo ran a story with a picture of Ayyadurai with the words ‘IMPOSTER?’
Several other bloggers discovered Ayyadurai’s Time magazine article, in which he dismissed earlier ARPANET message systems as ‘text messaging’ programs.
They also found that Ayyadurai had edited Wikipedia’s e-mail entry to say that “the term ‘EMAIL’ was officially coined by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, who received the first copyright for EMAIL in 1982.”
Also to surface was an email exchange between Ayyadurai and Wikipedia editors who accused Ayyadurai of ‘self-promotion’.
As the furore grew, the Smithsonian suspended its plans to display Ayyadurai’s documents and the Post published several editorials questioning its own journalism and saying: Ayyadurai “should not have been called ‘inventor of e-mail’ in the headline.”
A lengthy correction soon followed.
The early ARPANET guys then turned their attentions to Ayyadurai’s employers at MIT, demanding why the prestigious institute was associating itself with a man of questionable character.
Soon after, MIT politely informed Ayyadurai that it would stop backing his EMAIL IT LAB which he had set up to “invent innovative solutions for addressing challenges faced in the field of communication by today’s organizations”.
It also emerged that over the course of a decade, Ayyadurai had registered more than 100 website URL’s in his name, including ‘Emailinventor.com’ and ‘DrEmail’.
Ayyadurai remained unperturbed.
He told the Boston Magazine that his EMAIL program was the first of its kind, a comprehensive system invented specifically for the office environment while ARPANET merely sent text messages back and forth.
His critics, he said, “simply can’t accept that something remarkable could come out of a small medical college in New Jersey and was created by an Indian teenager”.
Whatever the merits of both sides of the argument, history is littered with examples such as Shiva Ayyadurai.
Alexander Graham Bell is said to have submitted the patent for a telephone on the very same day as fellow inventor Elisha Gray, and promptly entered the history books.
What is agreed by historians is that before this furore had begun, many techies had not even heard of Ayyadurai.
Others also say that whilst email was hardly used in Ayyadurai’s day, what we know as email had begun to emerge and take shape well before 1978.
As such, as one expert says, “if a bus had hit Shiva Ayyadurai in 1976, the history of email would not have changed one bit”.
Soon after the furore began, Ayyadurai’s work dried up and MIT had distanced itself from him.
In the last year or so however, he and his assistant have put together dossiers on his detractors to prove that it is all one big conspiracy and even sent out legal notices.
But before he embarks on a full-scale courtroom battle in the US, he wants to take his message to the Indian people.
He told the Economic Times this month: “When Deepak Chopra started talking of ayurveda in the US, he was attacked. His advice was to go directly to the people,” he said.
As the conspiracy and furious internet chatter refuses to die down, the world waits with bated breath.