Email is one of the most used features on the internet today. However, how many of us know who invented it first? When was it used for the very first time? What were the circumstances that led to its invention? Most importantly what is the Indian connection?

Well, it turns out that the boy who invented Email for the very first time was an Indian, who had migrated to the US along with his parents when he was 7 years old. Aged just 14, Shiva Ayyadurai, is the brain behind the popular software system that we use so casually today. Back in 1978, when Shiva made this innovation there were no patents or copyrights for software. The US Government made an amendment to the Copyrights Act only a couple of years later, in 1980, to include software. Following this amendment, Shiva applied for a copyright in 1981 and received the same in 1982.

To understand the circumstances that led to this innovation by a young Shiva, we need to travel back in time to an institution called University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). It is worth mentioning here that not only was this a small institution but also that Ayyadurai had to work on the project with almost no funding or at the best very limited funds. Yet, it was his determination and the support he got from his family and teachers that helped him in completing the project successfully. Shiva was at that time pursuing a special program in computer science at New York University and after the completion of the program he was introduced to Dr. Leslie P Michelson, by a family friend named Martin Feuerman. Dr. Leslie was the Director of the Laboratory Computer Network at UMDNJ. Recognising the talent and dedication of the young boy Dr. Leslie gave him the position of a research scholar and assigned him the task of converting paper based mail communications within the UMDNJ to an electronic one.

Not one to be bogged down, Shiva got a special permission from his high school, with the help of his teacher Stella Oleksiak, to visit UMDNJ during school hours. He carefully studied the present inter-office communication system of the university and replicated the same in an electronic format using FORTRAN programming language. Since FORTRAN required that all names be in upper case and because the operating system capped the program names at 5 characters, Shiva named his program EMAIL. Thus a simpler electronic system of inter-office communication replaced the complex network of pneumatic tubes carrying mails and eliminated the use of reams of papers. It also saved secretaries time and effort required in typing such mails on a typewriter and helped them to make the switch to keyboard instead. In 1981, Shiva received a Westinghouse Science Talent Search Honors Award which is considered to be Baby Noble’s, for his invention.

Thus, it is this then 14 year old Indian American’s invention that was the precursor to texting and chatting. While emails have become all too common today; let us not forget the brain behind the invention and thank Mr. Shiva Ayyadurai for this time saving innovation that has made life and communication so much more easier for all of us.


Latha Iyer