“I was mostly looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much.”
When the Museum of Modern Art decided to add “@” to its permanent collection, they cited it 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.” Even given the hyperbole usually associated with such announcements this seems like a stretch—particularly since the modernity of @ itself is in question. Most of us associate the symbol with email, Twitter and a host of other commercial and personal applications in which @ is convenient shorthand for the more cumbersome “at.” But far from being high tech, some scholars claim @ has been around since the 6th or 7th century. Others maintain it was developed by medieval monks as a shorthand form of ad (at). They reason that this simple economy would save both time and space as monastic scribes labored over their illuminated manuscripts. Were that true, however, practical-minded monks would probably have written everything in shorthand and spared generations of students the bother of having to learn Latin. The only hard evidence we have about the origins of @ comes from the business correspondence of one Francesco Lapi. Lapi was a Spanish trader and on May 4, 1536 he sent a letter to Rome regarding the arrival of three ships ladened with amphoras of wine. He wrote that an amphora sold @ 70 or 80 ducats. This commercial application survives to the present day. Still, the symbol was unfamiliar to most folks until it started showing up on typewriter keyboards in 1885. That’s when the Hammond Typewriter Company added it in an effort to boost sales. Sadly, despite Hammond’s good intentions, @ languished on the keyboard. Most people didn’t know what to do with it. But that was about to change.
In 1971 Ray Tomlinson was a programmer trying to find ways in which humans and computers could interact. Frustrated by his colleagues inability to interact with the telephone—they usually didn’t pick up—he developed way to let the computers do the talking. Today we know this as email and more than 90 trillion are sent and received annually. The key to making it work was finding a means of separating the names of senders and receivers from the names of their machines. To avoid confusion, it couldn’t be a number, letter or symbol widely in use. Stumped, he looked down at his keyboard and spotted the lonely @. He tested it out in his lab and then with remote computers. It worked flawlessly though Tomlinson didn’t realize at first what he’d accomplished. In fact, when he shared it with a friend he cautioned, “Don’t tell anyone—this isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.” He needn’t have worried. Email was an instant success and overnight the neglected @ was raised to stardom.
The stardom wasn’t to last. Overexposure eroded @’s cachet (anyone remember excite@home?) and new icons like the e- and i- prefixes came to define tech glamour. None-the–less, @ has gone from obscure to commonplace and no other symbol is more widely used by more people. With its ancient pedigree, @ reminds us that there’s often rich history in the everyday things we take for granted. We just have to look. There’s also comfort in the realization that old things might have some value after all. Seriously, if 478 year-old @ can achieve stardom, why can’t the rest of us—at least for a little while? —Ebert