The Indian Who Invented Email, And Refuses to Be a “Good Indian”

What Really Bothers Some People is that Shiva Ayyadurai, the Inventor of Email Refuses to be a Mahatma Gandhi and Sit in the Lotus Position
By Suresh Mangalagiri & Sonu Mathews Abraham | July 8, 2016
Indians have been historically depicted as being good and obedient servants of the "White" man. Ayyadurai defies this narrative.

Indians have been historically depicted as being good and obedient servants of the "White" man. Ayyadurai defies this narrative.

Racism is always about segregation. Sometimes it’s physical segregation. You have to live here and not there. You can go to this school and not that one. But more often it’s about segregated expectations. One group of people expects another group to behave in certain ways. And if the expectation isn’t fulfilled, if the target group tries to move out of the approved emotional neighborhood, that’s when there’s trouble.

Shiva Ayyadurai was born into a lower caste family in Mumbai, the most populous city in India. The family moved to New Jersey when Shiva was seven years old and he quickly distinguished himself in public school. So far, so good! A smart Indian kid is perfectly acceptable and even rather charming.

Shiva was definitely bright. At age fourteen, after completing a special program in computer science at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, he was recruited by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey as a Research Fellow. There his mentor presented him with an irresistible challenge. Shiva was asked to create a computerized equivalent of the interoffice mail system, in which hard copies of documents were circulated throughout an office environment in a large manila envelope.  Once again, so far, so good.

Shiva wrote fifty thousand lines of computer code for a user-friendly communication software program that included inbox, outbox, attachments, folders, and all the other features of email. Except, there was no “email” until then.  At that hospital in Newark, fourteen-year-old Shiva Ayyadurai literally invented email. He even got a U.S. government copyright on the software system that he named “EMAIL,” which was the only legal protection available for software at that time. So far so good! Nice work by the bright kid from India!

For no less than thirty-three years following his invention of email, Shiva sought neither recognition nor financial gain for inventing of one of the most revolutionary tools in the history of human communication. He went on to earn four degrees from MIT, including a doctorate in biological engineering. But in 2011 an article appeared in Time magazine entitled “The Man Who Invented Email.” And, then the Smithsonian wanted and honored him when they received the artifacts documenting his invention. On February 16, 2012, an article appeared in the Washington Post with the headline, “V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai Honored by Smithsonian as the Inventor of Email.”

What?! This was extremely troubling to software segregationists. Who was this wog from Mumbai and Newark? He’s in the wrong neighborhood. Let’s call him a “liar,” a “dick,” and a “fraud.” Let’s write that, “the curry-stained Indian should be shot and hanged by his dhothi.”

The Washington Post printed a correction.  Shiva was not the “inventor of electronic messaging” – which is true enough, because electronic messaging goes all the way back to the days of Morse code and the telegraph. Shiva never claimed to be the inventor of electronic messaging, because electronic messaging is something very different from email.

But here’s what really got the goat of the tech industry insiders. When Shiva was ridiculed and defamed, he did not humbly fade away. He wouldn’t conform to the reassuring Mahatma Gandhi stereotype. On the contrary, he fiercely defended his work. He even pointed out the financial interest of the Raytheon Corporation’s assertion that one of its employees was the real inventor of email. Big defense contractors have a familiar storyline about bringing us all sorts of everyday conveniences. That’s why we’re not supposed to question the funding of their billion dollar missiles.

What’s more, the company also earned that market, and invokes its “reputation” as a major asset using its imagined inventor of email, to support that reputation like a trophy on a shelf. There’s a powerful financial motive to discredit Shiva and rewrite the history of his innovation.  As someone once said, follow the money!

Shiva Ayyadurai, beyond dispute, is the inventor of email. In fact, a RAND Corporation report summarizing the state of electronic messaging in 1977 concluded such a system was hopelessly unrealistic. The report stated, “no attempt is being made to emulate a full-scale, inter-organizational mail system… The fact that the system [would be] intended for use in various organizational contexts and by users of differing expertise makes it almost impossible to build a system which responds to all users’ needs.”

But again, I believe that Shiva’s refusal to stay in an intellectual ghetto is what’s really unacceptable, even more so than his invention. Why won’t he just say, “Aw shucks” and take his racist ridiculing, including being called a “nigger Indian,” like a good fellow and be humble and quiet? Why can’t a dark-skinned kid who started at the bottom of the barrel in Mumbai, India, and then moved to godforsaken Newark, New Jersey, behave like a perfect gentleman from Greenwich, Connecticut or, at the very least, like a self-effacing nerd in khaki trousers and a plaid short-sleeved shirt?

What the hell is the matter with him? The truth is, nothing is the matter with Shiva except he won’t stay in the lotus position. Now he’s brought a lawsuit against Gawker Media, publisher of a particularly defamatory article about the email controversy. He doesn’t need to do this for financial reasons. Shiva is the founder and CEO of CytoSolve, a biotechnology company with a goal, among others, of replacing all animal testing with computer modeling.

He doesn’t need to do this to help define him.  He won nearly every award at MIT.  For his many innovations, he was on the front page of MIT publications and in other major media. You can Google Shiva Ayyadurai and see for yourself.

But Shiva does need to do this. It’s for the same reason Apaches refused to stay on the reservation and African-Americans refused to sit in the back of the bus.

You would do the same thing, wouldn’t you?

Mr. Suresh Mangalgiri, an IT technologist and serial entrepreneur, originally from Telangana, India, is Chairman & CEO of CSM Technologies, LTD, based in Uxbridge, United Kingdom. Mr. Sonu Mathews Abraham, an IT operations executive, originally from Kerala, India, is Manager of Operations at Sunshine Homecare Services, based in New Jersey, United States.