In this age of global connectivity, email and Twitter, we’ve seen a number of revolutions, most of which have used modern tools and techniques that human beings had hardly dreamed of in the past. The @ Symbol has become synonymous with our tech-savvy generation, but unlike many other new-age elements of communication, the history of this squiggly symbol stretches back centuries.
Ancient monks? Italian merchants hawking their wares? A computer scientist in Cambridge, Massachusetts? The story of the @ symbol is a long and strange ride, and one worth digging into.
The Long Tale (Tail?) of the @ Symbol
You may instantly associate the @ symbol with email, Twitter, and uber-modernity, but in fact, its origins stretch back more than half a millennia. With the earliest recorded use being in a religious text from the middle of the 14th century, its more frequent use appeared as a mercantile notation, a shorthand abbreviation for “at each”. For example, you might buy “6 Rolls @ $1”, which would total $6, whereas “6 Rolls at $1” would total $1.
In Latin, the abbreviation AD means to, towards, or at, but the peculiar way of writing in those ancient times meant that the d in “ad” had a tail that curled around the top of the “d” body. Eventually, the round body of the “a” and “d” merged, and the curled tail continued to encompass both, resulting in the @ symbol that we all recognize today. These centuries-old uses are found in France, Italy, and other European texts.
However, its widespread use declined significantly in the 19th century, and despite being an anecdotal part of European commerce and a globally understood symbol, it was not even included on early typewriters. It made a reappearance in the 1890s, but remained one of the least used symbols for printing and typing for decades.
The @ Symbol Makes a Comeback
In 1971, however, the @ symbol was about to have a Renaissance, one that continues to this day. A man named Ray Tomlinson, working at BBN Technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was faced with an interesting problem. As a computer scientist, he was trying to create a network called Arpanet, which was a basic precursor to the Internet, and was tasked with developing a way to connect computer programmers who were working on different computers. The means of communication needed to be something simple, including the name of the sender, and the specification of the computer, without confusing the computer with commonly used symbols or grammatical marks.
The @ symbol, which had largely fallen out of use, caught his eye on the keyboard, and history was made. He sent the first primitive email using the @ symbol between two computers. The content of this first test message has been forgotten in the annals of history, but whatever it said, a more accurate message would have been “You’re about to change the face of global communication.”
The Spread of @
The @ symbol has become one of the most recognized and used symbols on our computers and in our lives, and even as email became “old news” in recent years, following the rise of social media and advanced communication strategies, the @ symbol became a key component of Twitter. The symbol is used to signify a direct reply to someone, for example, “@BillytheKid I agree with what you’re saying”.
The @ symbol has picked up a number of different names along the way, affectionately referred to as a “snail” and “sweet roll” in some countries due to its unusual appearance. It’s strange how the simplest things can often stem from such a strange and unexpected history, and it’s a good reminder that history does repeat itself!
Ray Tomlinson, the modern “inventor” of the @ symbol for technology-based communication, passed away in early March 2016, but one thing is certain – his legacy and his legendary symbol will live on for many, many years.