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R Gopalakrishnan: The 'I' factor in innovation

Who should get the credit for an innovation? Should it be the one who conceptualised it or the one who commercialised it for public use?

R Gopalakrishnan 

R Gopalakrishnan

In my last two Innocolumns ('Neat and clean' innovation, April 18 and 'Time, patience & innovation', May 16), I reviewed the important subjects of public sanitation and gas fracking to illustrate how innovation is an endless journey with many actors and players. With regard to sanitation, I traced its 3,000 year history from Mohenjodaro to modern times. Clearly, the task of public sanitation is still incomplete. In the case of gas fracking, the modern George Mitchell-inspired technique, was traced to his ability to combine two independently developed technologies, dating over several decades, thus creating a new future.

Readers' responses have been diverse and interesting and, from a writer's viewpoint, rewarding as well. Many observed that each innovation has built on a previous innovation in seemingly unplanned pathways. No one single innovator, but a series of innovative people, who may not even know one other, seem to pass the baton as relay racers would. I am reminded of lines from William Shakespeare's As You Like It: "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players, They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts."

Because of the continuous nature of innovation and the build-up from one person to another, it can become quite contentious to figure out who was the first, the absolute first. We must conclude that nobody is an absolute first, save for Adam!

In this context, I was interested to read the book The EMAIL revolution: How to build brands and real connections by V A Shiva Ayyadurai, a Massachusetts-based scientist and Indian-origin entrepreneur, the inventor of email. It is a fascinating read. One should be understanding of the "I" factor (which anyway is the first letter among innovators!). Ayyadurai defends himself against contesting claimants to being the inventor, so it is perfectly understandable that he seeks "to share his personal story of inventing email... and to inspire young people with the larger truth, that innovation can take place anywhere, anytime, by anybody". His very proud moment was on February 16, 2012, when his "papers, computer code and artefacts, documenting the invention of email were accepted into the Smithsonian Institution" in Washington. He branded it as "email".

In 1978, a 14-year-old named Shiva, a research fellow at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, was challenged by Leslie P Michelson, his supervisor, to translate the conventional paper-based inter-office and inter-organisational communication system to an electronic communication system. The university was a big campus connected by a wide area computer network. The computer was in its initial stages of being used in the office environment. Michelson wanted to create an electronic version of the inter-office mail system so that the entire staff of doctors, secretaries, students and staff could communicate faster. Ayyadurai envisioned something simple, something that everyone could use to quickly and reliably send and receive digital messages. Ayyadurai embraced the project and began by performing a thorough evaluation of the paper-based mail system, the same as the one used in offices around the world.

There have been contradictory claimants to being the inventor of electronic mail. The special interest group Computers and Information Society has even indicated that there were electronic mail systems existing prior to the work done by Ayyadurai and discounts his work as an invention, arguing that the "Google Chrome browser cannot be considered an Invention as many previous browsers existed". As early as 1970s, under an American program called Arpanet, electronic mail had already been invented. The legendary computer scientist, Don Knuth, has gone on record that he used electronic mail in 1975. Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), a subsidiary of mighty Raytheon, positioned its mascot Ray Tomlinson as the inventor of electronic mail. There are many who contributed to significant incremental firsts in the development of electronic mail as we know it today. As a pioneer, Tomlinson has himself said "Any single development is stepping on the heels of the previous one and is so closely followed by the next that most advances are obscured. I think that few individuals will be remembered."

Ayyadurai built a very easy-to-use, friendly interface, with a rich set of features such as inbox, outbox, drafts, send, receive, attachments, copy and so on. The first system developed by Ayyadurai contained nearly all the features of today's email services such as Gmail and Yahoo! Mail. Ayyadurai named his program EMAIL and acquired its copyright in 1982. Fifty thousand lines of code were submitted to the US copyright office. Many more email components were subsequently developed and further enhanced this absolutely important and most used digital mode of communication.

All said and done, the EMAIL program developed by Ayyadurai is a hugely impressive accomplishment and has had a transformational impact on the way people communicated electronically.

Whom should history credit with the path-breaking innovations that take place? Should it be the one who conceptualised it and created prototypes or should it be the one who commercialised the innovation for general use and patented it? In both cases, considerable effort and intellect is required, but eventually the world generally remembers and applauds the one who is the face of the innovation and made it available for public use. The world associates Apple Computers solely with Steve Jobs, but the great contributions of Steve Wozniak are less known. Academics cover the achievements and contributions of Thomas Edison in providing mankind with electricity and the first incandescent light bulb, yet there is so much of contributions of Volta, Ampere, Oersted, Ohm, Galvani, Franklin, Maxwell and Faraday that underpin Edison's work.

The writer is director, Tata Sons.
Rajiv Desai assisted in the research for this article

First Published: Thu, June 12 2014. 21:48 IST