The Father of the E-Mail Attachment Reflects on His Invention

If it were not for Nathaniel Borenstein, our e-mail inboxes would be nothing but dull, text message receptacles.

Fortunately, our messaging fate has avoided such a limited path. Borenstein’s invention of the e-mail attachment 20 years ago, allows millions of users to send multimedia attachments to friends, family and coworkers every day.

The reliable and familiar e-mail attachment, like the text message, turns 20 this year. Patrick Kingsley of The Guardian caught up with Borenstein to reflect on the legacy he created with his invention.

“There were several people who said: this is just an obscene waste of bandwidth,” remembers Borenstein, then working for telecoms giant Bellcore (Telephone Chords: geddit?).

“It was considered antisocial to send too big an email. People found it inconceivable that rather than posting a film photograph in the mail, you would prefer to scan and transmit them over a slow modem. They didn’t see that in time you wouldn’t scan the pictures, you’d use a digital camera; you wouldn’t have a modem, you’d have high-speed Internet. I would tell people: ‘Some day I’m going to have grandkids, and I’ll want to email people pictures of them.’ And people laughed.”

Another fun fact that Borenstein reveals? He actually hates that they’re called attachments.

“I hate the name attachment!” reveals Borenstein, still bristling after 20 years. This was because he didn’t want the attachment to actually be an attachment: he wanted pictures and audio included within the body of an email.

“I beat myself up about it,” he says. “One of my mistakes was not to distinguish well enough between those two models. The result is that if I put a picture in the body of an email today, and send it on a Mac, you’ll still see it as an attachment symbol on many PCs. That’s the second-most embarrassing mistake I made.”

Think we could get the father of the cell phone, the e-mail attachment and the text message together for a big techno-father’s day this year? If not, they should at least revel in the fact that their techno babies have truly changed the world.