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The story of one very big little symbol: @

The at symbol.

It's a symbol we use perhaps dozens of times a day, depending on how many emails or tweets we send.  That little "at" symbol that sits right above the number two on our keyboards. Ever wonder where it came from and how it got so popular?

William Allman can tell you. He's chief digital officer at  Smithsonian Enterprises and he's written an article all about that little symbol.

And while the "@" sign is pretty essential in online communication, he'll tell you that "for centuries, it's had a very pedestrian, perfunctory, and essential role in commerce."

That all changed in the early days of the Internet. Programmers needed a way to address messages to each other. Their challenge was to use a symbol that wasn't already in use for coding. The obscurity of the symbol helped make it the perfect option for early email addresses.

"There was a fella named Ray Tomlinson and he was trying to solve a problem. He wanted to be able to communicate with other researchers who were connected to other computers. His big challenge was how do I identify that person on that computer and how do I identify myself on my computer since there could have been dozens or hundreds of people on each computer," says Allman. "At the time many of the symbols were being used in computer programming already, so to insert a different symbol would have caused a problem, the computer would have misunderstood it. So he picked the most obscure he could see, which was the @ sign."

We just call it the "at" symbol in English but the symbol that looks like @ has a whole host of interesting nicknames in different languages. The French sometimes refer to it as "the snail" while the Polish call it a "monkey." Germans and Turk agree it looks like an "ear." What's your favorite?

Sarah Gardner: It's a symbol we use perhaps dozens of times a day, depending on how many emails or tweets we send. That little "@" symbol that sits right above the number 2 on our keyboards. Ever wonder where it came from and how it got so popular? Well, William Allman can tell you. He's chief digital officer at Smithsonian Enterprises and he's written an article all about that little symbol. Mr. Allman, welcome.

William Allman: Thank you.

Gardner: So do we know where the @ symbol came from?

Allman: Sure. For centuries it's had a very sort of pedestrian, perfunctory and essential role in commerce. If you've buying 12 widgets at $1, it's $12. Not 12 widgets for $1. And so the @ sign has been used that way forever, for hundreds of years.

Gardner: Now I understand that the earliest typerwriters didn't have the @ symbol, so had it almost gone extinct? The way of the cent sign?

Allman: Exactly. It was threatened because of course the first typewriters were these clunky mechanical things, space was very scarce. So they had to decide, which symbols do we want to put on there. And the @ didn't make the cut, you can still find typewriters without the @ sign on, just as now you have hunt to find one that has the cent sign on it.

Gardner: So how did the @ symbol then make such a dramatic comeback?

Allman: Part of its success was in fact because of its relative obscurity. There was a fella named Ray Tomlinson and he was trying to solve a problem. He wanted to be able to communicate with other researchers who were connected to other computers. His big challenge was how do I identify that person on that computer and how do I identify myself on my computer since there could have been dozens or hundreds of people on each computer. So he had a name and he had a computer and he had to find a way to link them together and his eyes fell on his keyboard and he said, 'well what should I use?' At the time many of the symbols were being used in computer programming already, so to insert a different symbol would have caused a problem, the computer would have misunderstood it. So he picked the most obscure he could see, which was the @ sign.

Gardner: You know, we just call it the "at" symbol and it's such a boring name. And you have pointed out that in other countries there are much more descriptive terms for that little symbol.

Allman: That's absolutely right. It's called the "snail" by the Italians. It's called the "monkey tail" by the Dutch. Most of us cyber people just call it the @ sign and most of in English call it the @ sign. But it's amazing because it's gone from being one of the most obscure symbols in the lexicon to this rock star of communication.

Gardner: William Allman wrote the article, "The Accidental History of the @ Symbol." It's in this month's issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Mr. Allman, thanks so much.

Allman: Thank you.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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