The origin of the symbol itself, one of the most graceful characters on the keyboard, 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, which were shipped in large clay jars.

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.” (That the total is $12, not $1, speaks to the symbol’s pivotal importance.) Still, the machine age 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.

The symbol’s modern obscurity ended in 1971, when a computer scientist named Ray Tomlinson was facing a vexing problem: how to connect people who programmed computers with one another. At that time, each programmer was typically connected to a particular mainframe machine via a phone connection and a teletype machine—basically a keyboard with a built-in printer. But these computers weren’t connected to one another, a shortcoming the U.S. government sought to overcome when it hired BBN Technologies, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, company Tomlinson worked for, to help develop a network called Arpanet, forerunner of the Internet.

Advertisements