The History of the @ Sign

by Larry Emmott on August 24, 2006

in General

In 1972, Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic message, now known as e-mail, using the @ symbol to indicate the location or institution of the e-mail recipient. Tomlinson, using a Model 33 Teletype device, understood that he needed to use a symbol that would not appear in anyone’s name so that there was no confusion. The logical choice for Tomlinson was the “at sign,” both because it was unlikely to appear in anyone’s name and also because it represented the word “at,” as in a particular user is sitting @ this specific computer. However, before the symbol became a standard key on typewriter keyboards in the 1880s and a standard on QWERTY keyboards in the 1940s, the @ sign had a long if somewhat sketchy history of use throughout the world.

Linguists are divided as to when the symbol first appeared. Some argue that the symbol dates back to the 6th or 7th centuries when Latin scribes adapted the symbol from the Latin word ad, meaning at, to or toward. Other linguists will argue that the @ sign is a more recent development, appearing sometime in the 18th century as a symbol used in commerce to indicate price per unit, as in 2 chickens @ 10 pence.

In 2000 Giorgio Stabile, a professor of the history of science at La Sapienza University in Italy, discovered some original 14th-century documents clearly marked with the @ sign to indicate a measure of quantity – the amphora. The amphora was a standard-sized terra cotta vessel used to carry wine and grain among merchants, and, according to Stabile, the use of the @ symbol in trade led to its contemporary meaning of “at the price of.”

While in the English language, @ is referred to as the “at sign,” other countries have different names for the symbol that is now so commonly used in e-mail transmissions throughout the world. Many of these countries associate the symbol with either food or animal names.

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