A Piece of Email History Comes to the American History Museum

A groundbreaking early email program, written by a high school student in 1979, helps tell the story of this crucial technology’s history

Shiva Ayyadurai's 1979 diagram of his email program
Shiva Ayyadurai's 1979 diagram of his email program Photo courtesy of the American History Museum

In the summer of 1979, a 14-year-old high school student named Shiva Ayyadurai was given an unusual project. As part of his part-time work for the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, he received a request from Dr. Lesley Michelson, who managed the computer lab: write a special program for the school’s doctors and other staff to use to communicate. “He said, ‘Shiva, we have this interoffice mail system, but I think we could create an electronic mail system,’” Ayyadurai, who is a visiting lecturer now a professor at MIT, recalls. “I had no idea what he was saying. I thought he literally meant sending electricity through paper.”

Ayyadurai spent the next few months writing a groundbreaking program he simply titled “Email.” Although previous computer networks had the capacity to send information between terminals, “Email” was one of the first to include a number of features we now take for granted: subject and body fields, inboxes, outboxes, cc, bcc, attachments, and others. He based these elements directly off of the interoffice mail memos the doctors had been using for years, in hopes of convincing people to actually use the newfangled technology.

More than 30 years later, email is now an irreplaceable part of modern digital life, and Ayyadurai has donated a trove of documents and code to the American History Museum to preserve his place in history. The donation, which occurred last week, included both a printout and tapes containing the program’s original Fortran code, the copyright he took out on the program and user manual, a presentation he gave to doctors and other staff at the College to explain the new program and other materials.

Peggy Kidwell, a curator at the museum who focuses on the history of science, mathematics and technology, says the artifacts show how much information technology has changed in the years since Ayyadurai’s early creation. “If you were to tell some information technology office today that they were going to have a high school student come in and set up their email program, it’d blow their minds,” she says. “But this is a really fascinating early example of how computers were changing communication.”

Update: In a statement, the American History Museum clarified the significance of Ayyadurai’s donation. “Exchanging messages through computer systems, what most people call “email,” predates the work of Ayyadurai,” the statement says. However, the museum determined that “Ayyadurai’s materials served as signposts to several stories about the American experience.” Read the full statement.

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