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The story of one very big little symbol: @

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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?

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