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Codebreaker

The rise of the @ symbol

Adriene Hill Aug 31, 2012

This is a story about the little symbol that could.  Many, many years ago, as Smithsonian Magazine tells us, the @ symbol wasn’t very popular.  It was the ugly duckling of symbols.

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.


In those distant days, the @ symbol still had a role to play–merchants used it for bookkeeping–but it was a small role.  But the @ symbol didn’t give up.  It worked hard.  It dreamed big.  Years passed.  And then a computer scientist named Ray Tomlinson came along.  “Ray Tomlinson was facing a vexing problem: how to connect people who programmed computers with one another.” He needed a symbol.  

Tomlinson’s eyes fell on @, poised above “P” on his Model 33 teletype. “I was mostly looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much,” he told Smithsonian. “And there weren’t a lot of options—an exclamation point or a comma. I could have used an equal sign, but that wouldn’t have made much sense.” Tomlinson chose @—“probably saving it from going the way of the ‘cent’ sign on computer keyboards,” he says. Using his naming system, he sent himself an e-mail, which traveled from one teletype in his room, through Arpanet, and back to a different teletype in his room. 

And like that, the @ symbol chugged up the mountain of relevance and turned into a swan.

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