Symbolism…the rise and rise of the at sign

Called the “snail” by Italians and the “monkey tail” by the Dutch, it’s hard to remember (thanks to email addresses, Twitter handles and LinkedIn mentions) a time when the @ sign was just an obscure symbol on our keyboards. @ has even been inducted into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, which cited its modern use as an example of “elegance, economy, intellectual transparency, and a sense of the possible future directions that are embedded in the arts of our time.”

The origins of the @ sign

The origin of the symbol itself is something of a mystery. One theory is that medieval monks, looking for shortcuts while copying manuscripts, converted the Latin word for “toward”—ad—to “a” with the back part of the “d” as a tail. Or it came from the French word for “at”—à—and scribes, striving for efficiency, swept the nib of the pen around the top and side. Or the symbol evolved from an abbreviation of “each at”—the “a” being encased by an “e.” The first documented use was in 1536, in a letter by Francesco Lapi, a Florentine merchant, who used @ to denote units of wine called amphorae.

The symbol later took on a historic role in commerce. Merchants have long used it to signify “at the rate of”—as in “12 widgets @ $1.”  The machine age, however, was not so kind to @. The first typewriters, built in the mid-1800s, didn’t include @. Likewise, @ was not among the symbolic array of the earliest punch-card tabulating systems (first used in collecting and processing the 1890 U.S. census), which were precursors to computer programming.

How the internet hijacked the @ sign

The symbol’s modern obscurity ended in 1971 when a computer scientist named Ray Tomlinson while developing Arpanet (a forerunner of the Internet), was facing a vexing problem: how to connect people who programmed computers with one another.

Tomlinson’s challenge was how to address a message created by one person and sent through Arpanet to someone at a different computer. The address needed an individual’s name, as well as the name of the computer, which might service many users. And the symbol separating those two address elements could not already be widely used in programs and operating systems, lest computers became confused.

Tomlinson’s eyes fell on @. “I was mostly looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much,” he told the Smithsonian. Tomlinson chose @, and using his naming system, he sent himself an e-mail.

He doesn’t remember what he wrote in that first email – perhaps the first hashtag?

Pamela Hellig