The First Email System

Robert Field
The Third Article in The History of Email Series

What we know today as “email” is a really a system - a system of interlocking parts, each of which is essential for ordinary people to communicate effectively with one or many others, in an environment where different kinds of information must be shared (memos, documents, files, etc.) i.e. the modern office environment.

In 1978, I was a colleague of Shiva Ayyadurai’s at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), located in Newark, NJ. Shiva and I worked together in the modern office environment of the 1970s, where information sharing, primarily through the printed-paper medium, was the modus operandi.

First page of the computer program showing Shiva’s naming the program “email”,
thus defining email to be the electronic interoffice mail system.

Much of my effort at the time was dedicated to managing database software systems. Though Shiva was nearly 20 years younger than me, neither I nor the other Lab members thought of Shiva as a kid or a student. His professionalism, programming capabilities, attention to detail, and commitment to producing software that was user-friendly and reliable, was extraordinary.

His supervisor Dr. Leslie P. Michelson challenged Shiva to create an electronic system that would emulate the interoffice mail system, then in use at UMDNJ. My interaction was one of being a sounding board for Shiva, time-to-time, on database functions and operating systems issues such as memory management. I recall, in particular, Shiva’s incredible persistence to face a technical problem head on, and to solve it.

As a former colleague of Shiva’s, I hope my writing this article, as a part of this History of Email Series, provides details on the first email system created at UMDNJ in 1978.

The Interoffice Mail System

Many people over the age of 40, myself included, will remember the interoffice paper mail system, which was the basis of how offices around the world operated, from the level of secretaries to CEOs. The interoffice mail system had the following interlocked parts (as detailed in Table 1 below), which are the now-familiar components of email: Inbox, the Memo (“To:”, “From:”, “Date:”, “Subject:”, “Body:”, “Cc:”, “Bcc:”), Forwarding, Composing, Drafts, Edit, Reply, Delete, Priorities, Outbox, Folders, Archive, Attachments, Return Receipt, Carbon Copies (including Blind Carbon Copies), Sorting, Address Book, Groups, Bulk Distribution.

The interoffice mail system was not only used across offices but also inter-departmentally and inter-organizationally, some referring to it also as the inter-departmental or inter-organizational mail system, respectively. In this article, we consistently refer to the mail system as the interoffice mail system.

The interoffice mail system at UMDNJ was complicated, consisting of many components. In Table 1, below, is a detailed listing of the parts of the interoffice paper mail system, in use at UMDNJ in 1978, along with their detailed descriptions. If you took away any one component or part, such as the ability to attach other materials (Attachments) or the use of Folders or the ability to send Carbon Copies, your ability to function and communicate with co-workers was greatly impaired in the office environment. This is why it was a “system”, because you needed all the components to work together.

The Parts and Detailed Description of the Interoffice Mail System at UMDNJ (1978).

This was the physical Inbox where a secretary received incoming documents. It was usually made of wood, metal or plastic. The courier or “office boy” or “mailroom clerk” would deliver postal mail or interoffice memos into this Inbox. Deliveries into the Inbox were done at least twice per day. Sometimes, urgent messages were delivered on an ad hoc basis into the Inbox.
This was a physical box made of metal, wood, or plastic, where outgoing postal mail or interoffice memos, which were composed, edited, an placed in an envelope, and addressed to the recipient, were made available for pickup and delivery to its recipients. A courier or “office boy” or “mailroom clerk” would come and pick up the items from the Outbox regularly, at least twice per day.
This was a physical box made of metal, wood, or plastic to hold drafts of memos or letters, which were in the midst of being reviewed and edited. Typically, a secretary would write the memo and put in the Drafts box for review. A superior would then pickup, review and provide “red-line” feedback on the memo or letter, and place back into Drafts box. The secretary would retrieve the edited document, make changes, and place the edited document back in the Drafts box. After the superior gave instructions, the memo or document would be deemed as completed; the secretary would then place the memo in an envelope, and place it in the Outbox for pick up.
Memos, documents and files were archived and organized in metal cabinets containing metal drawers. Within each drawer, one could organize, categorize and these items in manila folders within each drawer.
A Typewriter was an instrument that allowed a person to create a Memo. It consisted of mechanical components corresponding to all the alphabets in the English language plus the 10 digits of the number system, as well as a number of other special characters. The Typewriter required paper and ink ribbon to convert strokes on the keyboard into letters on the paper. There were many styles of Typewriters, mechanical and later electrical.
This was typically a piece of 8 1/2 by 11-inch piece of BOND paper. The top of the Memo had the words “++++++ MEMORANDUM ++++++” written on it and centered. Below, there were the following areas: “To:”, “From:”, “Date:”, “Subject:”, “Body:”, “Cc:”, “Bcc:” (only for view in the sender’s original), and another section with “Encl.:”, if Attachment(s) were included. After the “Subject:”, there was typically a horizontal black line, after which the “Body:” of the memo appeared. Below the “Body:” were the names of people on “Cc:” list, and then the “Encl.:” list, listing the various Attachments.
A memo could have Attachments or enclosures such as another file folder, another document, a drawing or a photograph, or even a parcel.
Carbon copies were copies of a Memo created by the secretary, who would typically place dark blue carbon paper between two Bond pieces of white paper and roll them into the typewriter, to create the copies. The Bond paper on top was the original, the paper below, was the “Carbon Copy” or “Cc:”. Sometimes, several Carbons were used, and sometimes if the “Cc:” list was too long, the original would be mimeographed on a mimeograph machine. Then, the original “To:” recipient would get the original, the top copy, and each person on the CC list would get copies. This got more complicated if there were multiple recipients in the “To:” field, or a Group in the “To:” field.
Blind Carbon Copies enabled a secretary to send a Carbon Copy of a Memo to some people, that others on the “To:” and “Cc:” lists were purposely made to unaware, or “blind” except to the secretary who authored the Memo. The “Bcc:” list, in the header of the Memo, was kept by the sender/secretary, only, and others who got Carbon copies, those on the “Cc:” list, did not see e.g. they were “blind” to those receiving the Bcc’s. So only the sender knew who was on the Bcc list.
In the office environment of the medical school and hospital at UMDNJ, this was a very important feature, because certain Memos had to be acknowledged as received. A Memo could be flagged as a “Registered Memo,” this would mean that it was treated differently. The delivery person would put it in a different color envelope and ensure that recipient signed a Return Receipt, before it was put into the Inbox. This would assure the sender that the recipient got the Memo.
This was a formal receipt that a delivery person would make sure got signed by the recipient who had been sent a Registered Memo. This Return Receipt would then have to get sent back to the original sender.
The interoffice envelope was typically a bit larger than an 8 1/2 by 11-inch paper, and was normally gray or yellow in color. The envelope had a red string on the outside so it could be secured for ease of opening and reuse. The outside of the envelope provided columns and rows on which the sender and the recipient could be listed. After a recipient received the envelope, they could recycle the envelope by crossing out the previous sender and recipient and using the blank rows to write the new sender and recipient, name and address.
Every office had an Address Book, which listed each person’s first and last names, location, Group affiliation (e.g. surgery, finance, pharmacology), room number and phone number. The Address Book was the cornerstone of each offices’ contact list.
A Group was listed next to someone’s name in the Address Book. Individuals could belong to different Groups. Groups included Surgery, Pharmacology, ICU, IT, etc. One nuance was that the Group names may be the same, but the Group was distinct based on the campus location. For example, the Pharmacology Group at one location may have different people, than the Pharmacology Group at another location. Each location had different people in different Groups.
A Trash Bucket was typically next to a secretary’s desk on the floor. The bucket was made of either plastic or metal, and was the location of where trash, such as old papers, garbage were deposited.
Composing a Memo was done by the action of taking a blank piece of white Bond paper and placing it in the Typewriter. Sometimes, if errors were made during time, a white liquid substance in a small bottle jar, colloquially called “whiteout was used to erase mistakes, and then the typing was done over the whited out area.
Memo to an individual meant that the “To:” field had only the name of only one recipient.
Scanning mail was the process of quickly reading the Envelope in the Inbox, opening the Envelope and quickly reading the top portion of a Memo, such as the “From:”, “Subject:”, lines to get a quick idea whether to read the Memo immediately, discard it into the Trash Bucket to read first, to put for later review, or sometimes to discard altogether e.g. junk mail.
A person receiving and reviewing an incoming Memo in the Inbox could Forward or Re-Distribute the Memo to others. Forwarding literally involved adding a list of other recipients who to review the Memo. This Forward list was sometimes just paper-clipped on the received Memo, and as the forwarded recipients read the Memo, they checked off their name on the paper-clipped list, and passed it on to the next recipient, who had not yet read the Memo.
This was an important feature to ensure receipt of a forwarded Memo by the recipient. Sometimes, an important Memo, say from a Director, would be received by a Manager, and that Manager wanted to ensure that certain employees in his group received the Memo. Forwarding with Return Receipt enabled the Manager to know exactly when and who got the Memo and who did not get the Memo. Prior to someone receiving the Memo in their Inbox, the delivery person, would not place the Envelope containing the Memo, it in their Inbox, until the recipient, signed the Return Receipt. The Return Receipts from each employee was sent back to the Manager, and thereby the Manager could the number of Return Receipts and know how many actually received the Memo.
A memo sometimes would be edited after it was composed. Editing could be iterative based on the feedback received. Editing typically involved the use of whiteout or sometimes starting with new blank piece of paper and retyping the original Memo with the corrections. Editing relied on the use of the Drafts box, as this box served as the point of interaction between the secretary and her superior.
Sometimes instead of writing a new Memo, an individual Replied to a Memo received in the Inbox. When they replied to the Memo, they could either simply send the response Memo or attach the response Memo to the original Memo sent from the sender as an Attachment for the originating sender’s reference.
Sometimes a Memo would need to be broadcasted, or sent, to multiple recipients, sometimes hundreds, not just one individual. This involved listing multiple names of recipients in the “To:” field. The original Memo was created with the listing of all people’s names on the “To:” field. Then that original Memo was copied using the carbon paper to copy, if the list was small, or the original Memo was simply mimeographed. Then each copy was stuffed in an Envelope and placed in the Outbox.
In a large organization, within and across facilities, there were different departments such as Pharmacology, Finance, Administration, Surgery, etc., and one may want to send a Memo to a department or Group. A Group involved a listing of many recipients. However, in the “To:” field only the name of the Group would appear. The secretary would then have to look up in the Address Book and print mailing labels for each individual in that Group, and send a copy of the Memo to each recipient; alternatively, sometimes only one copy of the Group Memo was sent to on address, and the recipient, the secretary or administrator of the Group, on the other end, would make copies of the Memo, and distribute it to members of the Group.
Sometimes a memo would be thrown into the Trash Bucket for disposal.
The contents of Trash Bucket, by request, would be collected and be destroyed.
Address Books were updated as employees came and left the organization. New people were added, and those who had left were removed. Sometimes a circular was sent out which was the update to the existing Address Book, and one would have to manually insert the changes in an existing Address Book.
When mail was left in the Inbox, it sometimes was sorted based on some priority, and marked, such as High, Medium or Low by the secretary. And some secretaries, had file folders, for sorting these three categories of Memos.
Not all Memos were discarded after they were read. Some Memos were to be kept for storage, and were often put into an archive file cabinet and organized for long–term record keeping.
Sometimes a Memo could not be delivered even after many Retries. In this case, the delivery person would take the Memo back to the sender with a note on it saying “Undeliverable”.
All mail had to be delivered, or a real effort was made to keep trying to deliver it before being deemed Undeliverable. This meant a policy of “retries” as many as 3 to 5 times, before the attempts were stopped. The number of Retries was a policy decision of the organization.
All mail had to be securely delivered. This meant that only the designated recipient had to receive it. Typically this was ensured, as the delivery person knew who was who and knew the secretaries. Moreover, Memos were put in an individual sealed envelope, with a string closure or taped, so they could not be easily opened during transit.
All mail needed to be transported. There were many ways of Transporting. The delivery person could physically pick up the mail and deliver from local office to office, on foot. Another forms of transporting were using pneumatic tubes, in which the Envelope was placed. The pneumatic tubes were sent on a system of train-track-like rails, form office to office. Mail among different buildings and campuses was transported by cars or trucks.
Different locations had mail Sorting facilities, where the mail would come in, be sorted by groups, departments, locations, zip code, office numbers, so the delivery was easier. Within each office, the secretary would also perform sorting operations by a memo’s priority, source, etc.

If you did not know what the interoffice mail system was, before reading this article, I hope Table 1 was educational and provided you a detailed understanding of this paper-based system. Moreover, you will observe a near 1-to-1 correspondence with the parts of the interoffice mail system, itemized in Table 1, and the email system you are using today.

Email As We Know It Was Invented at UMDNJ

In 1978, Shiva conceived and developed an electronic system that replicated all the functions of UMDNJ’s entire interoffice paper mail system, as itemized in Table 1 above.

He named the system “email”, a name that, based on extensive document review, was first introduced and brought into use as his system spread throughout the UMDNJ campuses. This name was assigned to his program for both convenience and out of necessity since the FORTRAN IV programming language, which “email” was written in, required all variables to be in upper case and the RTE-IV operating system had a five-character limit for program names - thus, Shiva concatenated the letters “E”, ”M”, ”A”, ”I”, ”L” to name his program.

In 1978, those five juxtaposed characters had never been used before in the modern English language. While this term may seem obvious to us today, in 1978, it was not.

Table 2 provides a list of all the features that Shiva implemented into the first email system. As you can see, this system was not a “simple” system for just exchanging text messages. It was a full-scale version of the interoffice mail system in an electronic format.

This was email.

The Parts of Email, the First Email System as Implemented in the
Computer Program Invented by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai at UMDNJ (1978)

Interoffice Mail System Parts in the First Email System
All Fields of Interoffice Memo
Subject: (70 chars length)
Sending Memo to Individual
Saving a Memo as a Draft
Scanning Mail
Forwarding (or Redistribution)
Forwarding with RETURN RECEIPT (or registered memo)
Composing Memo
Broadcast Memo
Sending Memo to Group
Address Book
Updating Address Book
Searching the Address Book
By Group
By User Name (short name)
By Last Name
By Zipnode (node or location)
Carbon Copies
Blind Carbon Copies
Registered Memo
Return Receipt
Undeliverable Notification
Secure Delivery – Using username and password
Attaching to a memo
Creating Attachments from scratch
Saving attachments
Attachment editor
Transmission of memo
Multi-Level User Access – User, Manager, Postmaster, System Administrator
Memo Formatting – Formatting functions to make sure that a memo on the screen when printed looked akin to the typewritten memo.
Print all mail
Print selected memos
Print only the “envelopes”, To, From, Subject, Date
Formatted printing --- memo looked like typewritten one
Exporting of Mail
Export a single memo to a file
Export a set of memos to a file
Group Management --- Postmaster/Administrator Level
Creating Groups
Deleting Groups
Placing User in a Group
Deleting User from a Group
Displaying Groups
Restricting Group Access --- Particular users could send to certain groups. E.g. Only Postmaster could send to “ALL” for global broadcast.
Postmaster & Systems Administrator Functions
Reports on mail usage by user
Deleting aged mail
Shutdown of the entire system
Startup of the entire system
Deleting Users
Adding Users
Adding a “Zipnode”, new network
Deleting a Zipnode
Disabling a User from logging in to the user interface
Direct starting of mail transmission
Integrated System Components
Easy-To-Use User Interface
Integrated Attachment Editor
Relational Database Engine
Modular Inter-Process Communication Protocol
Print Manager for Formatted Printing
Systems Administrator Console
Post Master Console

Email was delivered as one holistic platform, that integrated an easy-to-use interface, and a word processor, all built from scratch by Shiva, as well as a relational database (to support folders, archival, sorting and many other features not possible with flat-file based approaches), with a modular intercommunications protocol.

In 1978, UMDNJ had four campus locations in New Jersey: Newark, Piscataway, Camden, and New Brunswick. Shiva and I worked out of the Newark campus. Workers on these campuses began using email as a public and commercially viable system starting in 1978, when we released the first version. At that time, any one who used a computer on the network, had to login. They were billed for hours of usage for the applications they chose to use. Email was one of these applications.

Shiva solely built the entire system, nearly 50,000 lines of code, using a high-level programming language (FORTRAN IV) and HP IMAGE/1000 database system. He was the sole author of this email system, designing and writing all the code. Dr. Leslie P. Michelson’s article “The Invention of Email”, which is also part of this series, provides additional details from Dr. Michelson’s interactions with Shiva at UMDNJ.

Unlike the developments on the ARPAnet, email was built to address a systems problem in the ordinary office situation using local area and wide area networks (LANs and WANs), where computers across offices and multiple campuses were connected --- independent of the ARPAnet. None of us in the Lab at UMDNJ had any contact with the ARPAnet. The first email system was meant to be a widely shared system of ongoing communication by ordinary workers, not computer scientists who knew code.

Email was developed with a focus on user-friendliness and high-reliability, and deployed as a commercial product, where nearly 500 office workers accessed, and used it. In 1981, Shiva was awarded a Westinghouse Science Talent Search Honors Award for inventing email.

V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai received Westinghouse Science Talent Search
Honors Award for invention of email system

Since patenting of software was not available in 1978, Shiva had to wait until 1980, when it became possible to protect software inventions by Copyright. In 1981, he applied for protection of his software, and was awarded two US copyrights in 1982.

The first US Copyright for “Email” was issued to V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai on August 30, 1982.
Official US Copyright Notice for “Email” Issued on August 30, 1982,
now in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History (NMAH).

One Copyright was for “Email”, “Computer Program for Electronic Mail System”, and the other Copyright was for the User’s Manual. He wrote the User’s Manual with the idea that anybody in an office setting could learn and adapt to his system. He had customers to serve!

Email Is Not Simply An Exchange of Messages

So email as a system is not simply exchanging messages among computers, even if a person at one end types a message to a human recipient. Sending text messages alone is what today we call Texting, SMS, Chat or Twitter.

Standard histories of the Internet are full of claims that certain individuals (and teams) in the ARPAnet environment in the 1970s and 1980s “invented email.” For example, the “@” sign, early programs for sending and receiving messages, and technical specifications known as RFCs, have been claimed to be “email.” But as some claimants have admitted, none of these innovations were intended as a system of interlocking parts ­ Inbox, Memo, Outbox, Folders, Address Book, etc. ­ the email system used today by billions of people worldwide.

The standard histories have used the term “email” - which today is understood to be a system of interdependent features - to apply to other forms of electronic communication. Those developments aimed to solve various problems, but were not intended to substitute for the interoffice paper mail system.

These claims have been compiled in an article called the “The Five Myths About Email” by Dr. Deborah J. Nightingale, an eminent enterprise systems architect and former Director of the MIT Sociotechnical Systems Research Center. This article is a summary of her and Dr. Sen Song's original work posted as False Claims on Research across hundreds of primary sources concerning these claims shows that each of these innovations - while very important in the evolution of the Internet - were single functions and never a system of interlocked components intended to emulate the interoffice paper mail system.


Members of our Lab kept in touch with Shiva. His work with email continued over the past thirty-five years, even after he left our Lab. From 1978 to 1984, he continued to enhance and evolve his invention at UMDNJ. In 1993, he went on to invent EchoMail, a platform for intelligent email management, growing out of work with the US White House.

During 1993 to 2003, EchoMail became one of the leading email management and email marketing companies for Global 2000 organizations. In early 2000, Shiva began the Email Research Institute, which is now known as the Email Lab, a division of the International Center for Integrative Systems, and aims to provide fundamental research about email. EchoMail, as I understand, now makes its technology accessible to small and mid-sized businesses. Today, he serves as Director of the Email Lab as well as a Board member of EchoMail, Inc.

As to his 1978 invention, on February 16, 2012, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC held a donation ceremony to accept the 50,000 lines of computer code, tapes, papers and other artifacts documenting the invention of email at UMDNJ. All of us, who were colleagues of Shiva, were proud of this event and happy that he received this well-deserved recognition.

An article about the donation ceremony in the Washington Post led to a series of counterclaims, and personal attacks on him. These events inspired those who had worked with Shiva in 1978 as well as some of his other colleagues to develop the website to share the facts about email’s invention.

As the website documents, industry insiders, loyal to Raytheon/BBN, a multi-billion dollar defense company, had created their entire brand, bearing the ‘@’ logo, based on claims of having “invented email”. This group unleashed a vicious public relations campaign. This campaign aimed to discredit email’s origins, intimidate journalists who did not parrot their claims, and assassinate Shiva’s character, while defending and promoting Raytheon/BBN’s brand as the “inventor of email” in the lucrative and competitive cyber-security market.

The leaders of these attacks included David Crocker, a member of the ARPAnet research community starting in 1972, and “historians” and “experts”, either former or current employees of Raytheon/BBN or close associates.

Mr. Crocker, during his attacks, however, had omitted an important fact, to the press and media. In December of 1977, months before Shiva invented email in 1978, Mr. Crocker had authored a historical document for the eminent RAND Corporation, where he summarized the history of electronic messaging by his colleagues, up until December of 1977. In that document, Mr. Crocker had stated:

"At this time, no attempt is being made to emulate a full-scale, inter-organizational mail system [p.4]…. The fact that the system is 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. [p.7]”
— Crocker, David. Framework and Function of the "MS" Personal Message System. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, December 1977.

From the beginning of his joining our research group, Shiva, however, had a singular intention to emulate the full-scale version of the interoffice paper mail system, with the precise goal of addressing the “various organizational contexts”, with “users of differing expertise” such as secretaries, doctors and students at UMDNJ, unlike the ARPAnet researchers.

He did “attempt” and did do the “impossible” to respond to “all users’ needs” by inventing email - the system of interlocking parts replicating the interoffice mail system - the email we all experience today, which Mr. Crocker and his contemporaries had concluded was “impossible”.

In spite of the overwhelming facts of email’s invention by Shiva in 1978 at UMDNJ, detractors and “historians”, part of the ARPAnet community as well as supporters of Raytheon/BBN, unleashed a campaign of historical revisionism in journals and other media to attempt to redefine “email” and to state that no one could have “invented email”. Their attempts at such historical revisionism are also documented on

In filing for the Copyright, the United States Copyright Office made Shiva’s work products, such as the User’s Manual and portions of his code, publicly available; anyone in the world could have access to it. Shortly after his invention, from 1982 onwards, other products with the same functions and interlocked components used in Shiva’s program “email” appeared in rapid succession (see the History of Email Infographic).

Shiva’s distinction as inventor of email is not to suggest that someone else, at some point in history, would not have created a full-scale emulation of the interoffice mail system (and perhaps called it something else), independent of his invention. The advances in computing and networking, and a growing desire to automate paper-based functions, would have eventually led to the creation of such a system. However, Shiva was the first to create such a system, to call it “email”, and, the first, to receive formal recognition by the United States Government for its invention.

This article, I hope, clarifies what “email” is and what it is not, as well as Shiva’s role as the inventor of email in 1978, while at UMDNJ, and finally, his commitment throughout his career to evolving email to benefit the general public.

About Robert Field

Robert FieldRobert Field is a Senior IST Technologist at Rutgers Medical School (RMS) in the school of Biomedical Sciences. For nearly 40 years, Mr. Field has been working at UMDNJ, now Rutgers University, after UMDNJ’s merger with RMS. His career began with the Laboratory Computer Network (LCN) and Scientific Computing group, as a Data Base Systems Programmer, developing database applications across a range of operating systems and networking environments. During his tenure at LCN, he and V.A. Shiva Dr. Ayyadurai, the inventor of email, were colleagues from 1978 to 1982. His work today focuses on supporting various academic computing initiatives at Rutgers.

Introduction: Leslie P. Michelson, Ph.D.
I. The Boy Who Invented Email – Lawrence E. Weber
II. The Invention of Email – Leslie P. Michelson, Ph.D.
III. The First Email System – Robert Field
IV. The Five Myths About Email's History – Deborah J. Nightingale, Ph.D.
V. The Future of Email – V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, Ph.D.
Epilogue (September 11, 2014): Attempts to Hijack the History of Email
Web Analytics