BOSTON — Here’s a little thought experiment: Who invented email?
Think about it for a second. Is there one name that comes to mind, the way you think of Steve Jobs and Apple or Bill Gates and Microsoft Windows?
Probably not. And one name that almost certainly does not come to mind is Errol Morris, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker who lives and works across the river in Cambridge. But in a series running this week in The New York Times, “Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck?,” Morris tests out the idea that it is his late brother, Noel Morris, who deserves much of the credit for the creation of email while working at MIT in the 1960s.
“Call it an attempt to avoid the Al Gore problem,” Morris told WBUR of his decision to treat the story as an investigation, rather than as a claim, and referring to the ridicule the former vice president faced after he was widely misquoted as having taken credit for the Internet.
But what Morris believes is this: His brother, Noel Morris, along with Tom Van Vleck, his brother’s friend and office mate at MIT in the ’60s, made email. They didn’t come up with the concept, that was another group of people at MIT, but they were the ones who actually made it happen.
The Online Comment That Started It All
So how did Morris come to this conclusion?
He is a regular contributor to the Opinion Pages of The New York Times. In a recent essay of his on the website, one reader comment stood out from the 500 or 600 at the bottom of the page:
…I had email today from another middle school student asking about Noel Morris’s place in history as (a) creator of electronic mail.
It was posted by Tom Van Vleck, who at the time Morris only remembered as a friend to his brother. So Morris took the bait and called Van Vleck. This is how part of that conversation went:
MORRIS: So, is this really true? Did Noel invent email?
VAN VLECK: He and I, together, invented email. That’s right. Someone else said, “Let’s have an email,” but he and I were the people who took that wish and wrote code that did it.
“Holy cow,” Morris remembers thinking.
‘A Story About Unintended Consequences’
From his research since that conversation, Morris says his brother and Van Vleck seized upon the idea of electronic mail out of absolute convenience.
“He had a typewriter computer console in his apartment, he would work throughout the night,” Morris remembered of his brother. “All of these consoles hooked up with modems to the mainframe, this was something completely new in the mid-’60s. And the minute you did that — the minute you had these consoles, these modems, this time-sharing — all the sudden people wanted to talk to each other. They didn’t want to just share time on the computer, they wanted to share information.”
So “it was something that just happened,” Morris said. “It wasn’t prepared for.”
Do We Have To Cancel A Postage Stamp?
It may seem ridiculous now, but a big concern to Noel Morris and Van Vleck was what would happen if the U.S. Postal Service found out what they had created.
“It’s a crime,” Morris explained, “to send a letter without canceling a first-class stamp.”
This was until a man from the Post Office’s new, high-tech division paid a visit to MIT and the friends broached the subject. “’You know we have this thing called email. Would you be interested?’ ” Morris recalled them asking. “The guy says, ‘Absolutely not.’ Because in those days, all they could imagine when they thought about computers was the computers would help in sorting the mail.”
So Morris’ brother and Van Vleck effectively had the blessing of the Post Office.
At this point in the story, Morris says he was struck by a realization. “My God,” he said to Van Vleck, “if you had been able to patent this…”
“Yes,” Van Vleck interrupted. “We would be richer than Bill.”
Presumably he meant Bill Gates, the world’s richest man.
Go Ahead And Doubt This Story
Morris is unperturbed that people may question his story or offer differing accounts of history.
“I love doubt. The world without doubt would be a truly miserable place,” he said. “I don’t write to tell people what they have to think, I write so that people can think about what I have written.”
Ultimately, he says, the essay is about more than just a claim on history, though Morris does believe his investigation shows his brother and Van Vleck were indeed the inventors of email. But the essay is also one he felt he needed to write for Noel Morris.
“It was an incredible family tragedy, his death at the age of 40,” Morris said. “I always was, still am, in awe of my brother. So this is many things to me. It’s part a story of my family and my family reminiscence — and also the story of a very important moment in the history of technology.”
Errol Morris is a writer and Academy Award-winning filmmaker. He lives and works in Cambridge.