Email: Another Desi Contribution to Antardeshi Progress

Did you know that over four billion emails are sent around the world 24×7, today? Or that, back in 1978, there were just two? And that one of those was born to a Tamil family in what was still Bombay on 2 December 1963? That child was VA Shiva Ayyadurai who moved with his family to the United States the age of seven. By the age of 13 he had mastered all known computer programming languages in vogue. At 14, he attended a special summer programme at the 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.

While attending high school, he also worked as a research fellow at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). His undergraduate degree from MIT was in electrical engineering and computer science while he took a master’s degree in visual studies from the MIT Media Laboratory on scientific visualisation; 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.

However, when only 14 in 1978, he was faced with a challenge. It was thrown at him by Dr Leslie P Michelson, director, High Performance Computing Lab, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), in Newark, New Jersey. The director asked Siva to create a full-scale electronic version of the inter-office paper mail system in use at UMDNJ at the time. And Siva created the first prototype in November 1978, calling it “email”. It enabled doctors at UMDNJ to manage mail electronically like they did the paper-based system earlier.

Here’s how Siva recently explained his monumental achievement:

“The UMDNJ was a big campus connected by a wide area computer network. The computer was in its initial stages of being used in the office environment. Dr Michelson wanted me to create an electronic version of the inter-office mail system so that the entire staff of doctors, secretaries, students and staff could communicate faster.

“At that time, secretaries and staff were performing the drafting, typing, copying, and hand-delivering of the entire paper-based mail. By observing the inter-office mail system, I created a parts list: Inbox, Outbox, Memo, Folders, Address Book, Attachments, and then created a computer programme of nearly 50,000 lines of computer code which replicated this entire system. I called my innovation ‘email’, a term that had never been used before. The world’s first email I sent was to Dr Michelson in November 1978.” And those were the very first two users of email in history.
Following the basic email system, Siva then developed an administrative system for email management in 1979 followed by an EMAIL User’s Manual in 1980. For creating the first email system that is user-friendly, network-wide and has highly reliable features, Siva was recognised in 1981 by the Westinghouse Science Talent Search Award committee. And, in 1982, the US Copyright Office issued the first copyright for “EMAIL”, the “Computer Program for Electronic Mail System” and another “Copyright to Email User’s Manual” to V A Siva Ayyadurai – as official and authoritative recognition of what this born-in-India mind had produced.

Siva has written a book, The Email Revolution: Unleashing The Power of Connect which has a foreword by Dr Leslie Michelson and an introduction by none other than Prof Noam Chomsky. He notes: “Young people of all colours, hungry to make this world a better place, are going to innovate things we’ve never imagined. We have to provide more global images to young people, in India, for example, with icons, beyond just white skinned and white haired, bearded scientists.”


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