The invention of the legendary @ symbol

The invention of the legendary @ symbol

Have you ever sat back and wondered why we use the @ symbol in our daily interactions with other’s over email or over social media sites like Twitter. This once rarely used symbol has become the icon of modern electronic communication.

This little “a” in the centre of a curl that is mostly referred to as the “at” symbol has no universal or official name. This symbol is associated with some type of animal in numerous languages like apenstaartje (Dutch – monkey’s tail), kissanhnta (Finnish – cat’s tail), grishale (Norwegian – pig’s tail) or snabel (Danish – elephant’s trunk).

The origin of the symbol itself is something of a mystery, or whose creation is somewhat of an accident. One theory describes the humble beginnings of @ symbol to be attributed to medieval monks who used shortcuts when copying manuscripts. The symbol may have even evolved from an abbreviation “each at” – with “a” being encased by an “e”.

The first documented use of the @ symbol was in 1936 when Francesno Lapi, a Florentine merchant, used @ to denote the units of amphora wine which were shipped in clay jars. The symbol grew to take a historic role in commerce with merchants using it to signify “at the rate of” as in 12 jars @ $1.

The symbol’s final break out role come in 1971, when a computer scientist named Ray Tomlinson was figuring out how to connect one computer programmer to another. During this period programmers where connected to a main frame machine by a phone connection and a teletype machine but were not connected to each other. The U.S. government worked to overcome this challenge by developing a network called Arpanet, a forerunner for the Internet.

Tomlinson’s challenge was to create a way in which one person could send a message through the Arpanet to another person’s computer.  The address needed to consist of the person’s name and component of computer which may service many users.

The symbol that was to separate these two address elements had to be a symbol that was not widely used in programs and operating systems which could result in the confusion of computers. Tomlinson decided to make use of the underutilised @ symbol and sent himself an e-mail which traveled from one teletype, through the Arpanet, to a different teletype.