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Time-sharing Terminals, Math Dynasties, Music, Coping with Loss, and the Invention of Email
June 21, 2011 11:45 AM   Subscribe

Did Errol Morris's brother invent email? Film documentarian Errol Morris starts an extended, discursive piece at the Opionator section of the New York Times. Having previously documented his investigation of Crimean War photographs, Morris has posted the first part of a planned five part series covering his older brother's role in creating an early form of email. Along the way he touches on the computer culture of the 60s, dining options in Cambridge, MA, the MIT experience, and the Van Vleck dynasty.
posted by benito.strauss (40 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh yeah, [via Reddit], according to my 'Go To Referrer' bookmarklet.

For those of you who care about such things.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:52 AM on June 21, 2011


part two posted yesterday
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 11:57 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is like the creator of the abacus also claiming responsibility for the moon landing. Doug McIlroy, IIRC, was always mentioning "standing on the shoulders of giants".
posted by k5.user at 11:59 AM on June 21, 2011


Well, from Tom Van Vleck's article here, it looks as though the MAIL concept was proposed by Louis Pouzin, Glenda Schroeder, and Pat Crisman - and that Noel Morris (and Tom Van Vleck) were the two programmers who implemented it.

So, I'd say - no, he didn't invent e-mail.
posted by kcds at 12:01 PM on June 21, 2011


Let's all be pedantic!
posted by chunking express at 12:02 PM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Someone on the Internet is wrong!
posted by tommasz at 12:04 PM on June 21, 2011


They worked on the Compatible Time-Sharing System at MIT. Which was so widely hated, due to quoatas, user permissions, and secuirty that it lead to the Incompatible_Timesharing_System at MIT, for which EMACS was written.

Pretty damn cool.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:05 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Let's all be pedantic!

Shouldn't that actually be Let us all be pedantic!?
posted by NoMich at 12:11 PM on June 21, 2011 [9 favorites]


Errol Morris is a national treasure. His Which Came First series is one of my most favorite "blog posts" on the internet. I can't wait for the rest of these.

But really, do we need a via Reddit for something that is on the New York Times?
posted by Threeway Handshake at 12:12 PM on June 21, 2011


Let's all be pedantic!

Let's all be pendants!
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:20 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like the Tom Lehrer anecdote:

Our office had a nameplate that said “T Lehrer / N Morris.” (Yes, that Tom Lehrer. We shared an office with him but never met him. He had an appointment at Harvard, and also worked with the MIT Center for International Studies, which was the organization that paid our salaries too. If he used the office at all, it was in the mornings or early afternoon, when Noel and I had classes and labs. We were more the night shift. I once mentioned Lehrer to Mrs. Pool, who said, “He’s quite nice, but very shy.”)
posted by verstegan at 12:21 PM on June 21, 2011


Email seems like a pretty obvious concept. But as a programmer I would personally give more credit to the person who actually implemented the code then someone who had the 'idea'. After all, the idea of sending email isn't that different then sending a telex or a telegram or whatever it is people did back in the day.
posted by delmoi at 12:41 PM on June 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


part two posted yesterday

Dang, I thought these would roll out over a period of weeks, like the Crimean photo posts. I was looking forward to savoring each one.

Part two has this picture, and I'm a little in love with Mary Thompson, whoever she was.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:43 PM on June 21, 2011


He also invented the piano key neck tie! What have you ever done?
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:46 PM on June 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Tom Van Vleck

This is a real person and not a name from a Dr. Seuss book?
posted by GuyZero at 12:51 PM on June 21, 2011


benito.strauss: Part two has this picture, and I'm a little in love with Mary Thompson, whoever she was.

Here's a bit more writing about Mary & Co, by Tom Van Vleck

posted by filthy light thief at 12:52 PM on June 21, 2011


Errol Morris's Opinionator articles are some of the best things I've read in the New York Times. The man is great.
posted by painquale at 12:55 PM on June 21, 2011


If you are like "no they didn't invent e-mail", you should really ignore the question in the title and just go read the interview/essay. It's a really wonderful piece of writing that manages to convey a lot about the early days of computing without talking down at all to a general audience.

Van Vleck's stuff at multicians.org, like the History of Electronic Mail page, is also great reading.

I think my proggit post from yesterday is probably the "via" on this one.
posted by brennen at 12:58 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Errol Morris is really the most interesting person around.
posted by Senator at 1:19 PM on June 21, 2011


We've lost the ability to conceptualize collectivity.

That is all.
posted by vitabellosi at 1:38 PM on June 21, 2011


MetaFilter: Let's all be pedantic!
posted by Sys Rq at 1:59 PM on June 21, 2011


Good read - since the paywall went up, I hardly bother going to the NYT anymore, so I'm glad to have articles like this pointed out to me.
posted by maryr at 2:12 PM on June 21, 2011


maryr: If you use google chrome, you can get a new 20 views just by using 'incognito mode' which doesn't carry your cookies over and clears them every time you close all your incognito mode windows (just press shift+N). I mostly use firefox but I do keep chrome around just for stuff like that.
posted by delmoi at 3:47 PM on June 21, 2011


Depends entirely on how you define 'e-mail' !

Certainly people were exchanging *files* on tape (magnetic or paper) starting in 1951. If a couriered tape had a file with a personal note appended, is that e-mail?

Or is an e-mail an ASCII-coded personal, non-commercial message? Before or after it's sent and received? Can that be between two employees of a corporation? Did the file have to be stored-and-forwarded? Did it have to be forwarded with a computer network, or hand-delivered by a courier?

Were the telegrams sent on the first trans-Atlantic cable ($5 a word, 15-word minimum) e-mails? Why not? (File written on piece of paper, encoded, transmitted, decoded, written-down, hand-delivered!)
posted by Twang at 4:16 PM on June 21, 2011


We've lost the ability to conceptualize collectivity.

I don't think this has a whole lot of bearing on the material at hand.

You read the text and you follow some of the links here and pretty soon you have Van Vleck going on for paragraphs about the large set of people who implemented similar ideas and contributed to the overall evolution of mail and mail-like software. Even in the main narrative, you've got this bit:
ERROL MORRIS: So, is this really true? Did Noel invent e-mail?

TOM VAN VLECK: He and I, together, invented e-mail. That’s right. Someone else said, “Let’s have an e-mail,” but he and I were the people who took that wish and wrote code that did it. Now, I don’t say we were the first or the only inventors, because I’m not interested in that. But I know that Noel and I invented it, and furthermore, I know that the e-mail that we invented was the ancestor of the e-mail for the next operating system, Multics, that we worked together on for many years. And that mail command was the ancestor of the mail command for many other systems, Unix, in particular. And so, it influenced all subsequent mail systems. So Noel has a legacy.

Or over here there are plenty of sentences like:
I am informed that SDC's Q32 operating system had both MAIL and inter-user messages (DIAL facility) in 1965. We probably knew about this; the timesharing world was very small in those days, and system developers knew each other and borrowed ideas freely.
Most people who work in software know that the process is one of long, incremental, iterative, shared work. Morris is looking for an affirmation of his brother's legacy here, and that comes out, but I don't read this stuff as particularly arrogant or self-aggrandizing. It all seems to acknowledge the collaborative, cross-pollinated nature of the effort. (Maybe people who were around at the time and working on this or other systems would disagree; fair enough, if so, I suppose.)
posted by brennen at 5:28 PM on June 21, 2011


Morris is looking for an affirmation of his brother's legacy here, and that comes out, but I don't read this stuff as particularly arrogant or self-aggrandizing.

And knowing Morris, it's unlikely to be as definitive an answer at the end of all five parts as you think it may be as of today.
posted by dhartung at 5:57 PM on June 21, 2011


Depends entirely on how you define 'e-mail'

"A digitally encoded message transferring information between two humans (or their agents, possibly computerized), involving one or more Turing complete electronic machines, stored by default.".

Incidentally, if you think the main point of the article was deciding who invented email, you may have missed something.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:10 PM on June 21, 2011


It's interesting to me that both what we now know as "email" (MAIL) and "instant messaging" (DIAL, later "talk" on Unix) were born at about the same time, but the former took off much faster and became widespread on non-timesharing systems long before the latter.

I would bet that if you took a poll of modern Internet users (perhaps limited to those over the age of 25 just so that you'd have something approaching a historical perspective) you would find a widespread perception that email is a much older technology than instant messaging.

I guess in large part that's probably just due to email being easier to implement without always-on connectivity, making it more conducive to dialup Internet access. I know that I never made much use of instant messaging at home until I had always-on cable internet.

But I also wonder if there's something conceptually easier for users coming from the analog world to understand about email, which spurred its adoption in corporate settings first. The idea of mail that is delivered instantly is a pretty easy sell. A telephone call that you have to type is ... somewhat more difficult to explain the benefit of.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:09 PM on June 21, 2011


delmoi: But as a programmer I would personally give more credit to the person who actually implemented the code then someone who had the 'idea'.

You said it yourself - you're a programmer, so you're going to be biased towards the implementer. The programmer may well invent novel algorithms and data structures to implement the concept, but in what sense is the originator of the concept not the inventor?

Let's all be pedantic!
posted by chunking express at 12:02 PM on June 21 [2 favorites +] [!]


It's pedantic to make a distinction between concept and implementation? Is that what you're saying?

Someone on the Internet is wrong!
posted by tommasz at 12:04 PM on June 21 [+] [!]


Seriously, go choke on a bucket of cocks.
posted by kcds at 8:38 PM on June 21, 2011


I might adopt Van Vleck's USENET pledge.
posted by klausman at 9:12 PM on June 21, 2011


I'm just disappointed email never turned out to be like this.
posted by Evilspork at 9:31 PM on June 21, 2011


I might adopt Van Vleck's USENET pledge.

Like most mortals on the Internet, I am well short of the requisite willpower, but that's remarkably sound advice all the same.
posted by brennen at 9:43 PM on June 21, 2011


Alas, evilspork, we must live with an uninvited writhing snake of promises of ejaculate, rather than the real thing.
posted by condour75 at 4:16 AM on June 22, 2011


You said it yourself - you're a programmer, so you're going to be biased towards the implementer. The programmer may well invent novel algorithms and data structures to implement the concept, but in what sense is the originator of the concept not the inventor?

In a sense, any attempt to discuss who "invented" something is unproductive for a number of reasons. One of them is that defining the platonic ideal of the invention in question is difficult, what is the minimum feature set that something has to have before we can consider it the first email? These days we probably wouldn't even classify something that only worked on one time-sharing system (when was the last time that you saw one of these which was actually a single computer rather than a whole network) as email.

Once you're leaving text files in a shared directory, you're basically a notification script and a header format away from local email.

We can claim that email and instant messaging have distinct roots because for a certain period they had distinct purposes and clients, but that isn't really true anymore. Certainly the underlying technology hasn't differed for quite some time (gmail is email because that's the way we're used to thinking of it, but the way we access it is the same way we access Facebook messages which are not email. A distinction born purely of history.

Part of the inherent ambiguity here is that software is its own specification, its own blueprint. If I write a memo specifying how a mail system might work in sufficient detail, then I'm pretty close to actually having built it.

Ideas are fairly ephemeral, after all, the people who wrote that first speculative memo about a feature that they'd like to see didn't really "invent" the concept either. The whole concept of individuals inventing things is a little problematic even in the pre-computer age, it's only gotten more complicated since.
posted by atrazine at 5:48 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


We've lost the ability to conceptualize collectivity.

----I don't think this has a whole lot of bearing on the material at hand.


I was thinking more about some of the responses here on the blue, rather than the article itself. But I am lazy and didn't make myself clear.

I read part two and enjoyed it. I also quite enjoyed the simulation of sending email back then--I kept trying to backspace. (for the record, I remember typewriters, and then the miracle of word processors!)
posted by vitabellosi at 7:07 AM on June 22, 2011


I was thinking more about some of the responses here on the blue, rather than the article itself. But I am lazy and didn't make myself clear.

Yeah, I realized this later after I'd already responded to what I thought you meant and shut off the computer for the night. My bad.
posted by brennen at 7:12 AM on June 22, 2011


Er, not to say that I realized you were lazy. I don't think that. Just realized original intent, I meant to say. Dammit.
posted by brennen at 7:13 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]



Good read - since the paywall went up, I hardly bother going to the NYT anymore, so I'm glad to have articles like this pointed out to me.


NYT Clean
posted by longdaysjourney at 7:55 AM on June 22, 2011


in what sense is the originator of the concept not the inventor?

Seriously? The dictionary is your friend on this one...
Personally, I have disdain for the very notion of inventors. It is born of the great-man theory of history, and I'm far too much of an anarchist for that. You will have a hard time finding an invention that has no antecedent.
posted by Chuckles at 2:28 PM on June 22, 2011


Everything is a Remix.

(I'm sure everyone else has seen this already, friend of mine mentioned it a couple days ago and it was the first I'd heard of it.)
posted by brennen at 9:33 AM on June 23, 2011


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