An amazing five-part Opinionator series in the New York Times documents a significant piece of computer history at MIT in the 1960-70s. Filmmaker Errol Morris writes about his brother, Noel Morris ’65, in the series: “Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck?” Here’s his starting point:
“Noel Morris’s place in history? Noel Morris was my older brother, who had dropped out of MIT and spent most of his waking hours holed up in an apartment working at a computer terminal. This was in the ‘60s, long before there was anything close to a home computer. The name Tom Van Vleck was not unfamiliar. He was a friend of my brother’s who worked with him at MIT in those days. I called him.”
The series, which ran June 19-23, mixes personal narrative with the exciting early days of room-size computers, particularly the role Noel Morris and Van Vleck played in the earliest email communication. Part 1 begins with Errol Morris’s search for Van Vleck ’65 and some family history relating to his brother’s death of a heart attack at age 40. Part 2 reveals technical details such as how to tell one programmer’s work from another’s. Part 3 looks into the MIT Archives collection for documents and images of early computing progress at MIT. Part 4 continues the saga of Multics and the search for history.
Part 5 concludes the series with interviews with Robert M. Fano ’41, ScD ’47, Ford Professor of Engineering emeritus, on starting Project MAC and his work on time-sharing computers in the 1960s. Then Morris turns to Van Vleck and asks about the origins of email. Among the questions to sort out are whether Morris and Van Vleck should be rightly cited as the first to send email (from one computer terminal to another) or does that title stay with Ray Tomlinson SM ’65, who was the first to send email from one computer to another over the brand-new ARPANET.
Van Vleck, who is not concerned about this question, says he and Noel Morris launched their e-mail communication on the only game in town:
“When Noel and I were doing it, there really was only one computer we could use. There was only one time-sharing computer, and so that’s what we did.”
Get interactive! See what it was like to send messages via the email program MAIL invented by Van Vleck and Morris.