Where does the @ symbol come from?
With an estimated 100 billion emails being sent every day (according to analytics firm Radicati), the @ symbol has become one of the most significant icons of the modern world.
Our Internet-fuelled culture has adopted the squiggle as a pivotal function to connect people to each other, not only via email but latterly by social media sites, including Twitter and Instagram. However, its origins actually date back hundreds of years, before the web, before telephones, before electricity.
In 2000, an Italian historian named Giorgio Stabile discovered the symbol being used in shipping manifests and accounting books dating back to 1536. According to a letter written by a medieval merchant, sent from Seville to Rome, it was an arcane form of shorthand used to abbreviate a quantity of wine. The amount was measured in ‘amphora’, written in the ancient record using the @ symbol.
In the years since Stabile published this study, further evidence of it being used in accountancy and commerce since medieval times has appeared. In fact, today it still represents a shorthand in trading conversion to signify costs “at the rate of”.
Such was the popularity of the abbreviation for this use over the next few centuries that it was not uncommon for @ to be included on the earliest forms of typewriter keyboards produced towards the end of the 19th century. It then transitioned to the first computers, as did most features of typewriter keyboards. And there it sat, used solely as shorthand for “at the rate of”, until it gained a whole new purpose after 1979.
The credit for creating the world’s first email system goes to the American computer programmer Ray Tomlinson, who, sadly, passed away earlier this year. While he was working for Bolt, Beranek and Newman (now BBN Technologies), on a project for ARPAnet — the network company that would be used as the basis for the Internet — Tomlimson was one of several programmers who was developing a system that could be used to send messages between computers.
An Italian historian discovered the @ symbol being used in shipping manifests and accounting books dating back to 1536
In order to help differentiate a user name from a destination address, Tomlimson included the @ symbol as part of the format: firstname.lastname@example.org. He would later admit that he selected the symbol because it was widely obsolete in the programming world at the time, and therefore would not easily confuse early forms of operating systems.
When Tomlinson was asked what he had written in the world’s first ever email he, famously, couldn’t remember. He’d dismissed it at the time, thinking his innovation wasn’t a big deal.
Of course, 100 billion emails per day later, we know he couldn’t have been further from the truth. Hence, in 2010, the Department of Architecture and Design at New York’s famous Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired the rights to the now ubiquitous symbol. But while MoMA’s purchase was purely, ahem, symbolic, it created an exhibition that would celebrate the radical rise in prominence of the symbol in the Internet age.
From its place as a shorthand scribbling for Italian wine merchants, @ has today become one of the world’s most unifying symbols, connecting people across every cultural border. It is the signifier for the digital dwellings that are so intrinsic to our lives. Which is not a bad for such a funny-looking squiggle.