Who Put the @ sign in your Email?


Once upon a time, there was no electronic mail. Then Ray Tomlinson came along.

In 1971, Tomlinson was an engineer at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, consulting firm of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN). BBN had a contract from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense to help in the development of ARPANET, an early network from which the Internet later emerged. Staff at BBN had developed a program to leave messages to each other on an ARPANET computer at the company.

Tomlinson came up with the notion of combining this program with another program that transferred files among ARPANET computers around the country in order to send messages among these networked computers.

To do this, however, he needed some means of distinguishing between messages intended for local recipients and those for people at some other location. According to an article in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) alumni magazine, Tomlinson (RPI '63) came up with the @ sign "to indicate that the user was 'at' some other host." The rest, as they say, is history.

But the history of the @ sign, in fact, pre-dates e-mail by many years.

Around 500, it would appear. Although the origin of the symbol has been long been disputed by scholars, Giorgio Stabile, a professor of the history of science at La Sapienza University in Italy, recently documented its use in a letter written by a Florentine merchant in 1536. In that letter, the @ sign represented an amphora, a standard-sized clay vessel used in ancient times to carry wine and grain in trade in the Mediterranean area. Eventually, according to Professor Stabile, the use of the "@" in trade led to its contemporary meaning (prior to e-mail, that is) of "at the price of." In 1885 it appeared on the keyboard of the first Underwood typewriter, from where it eventually made its way to today's standard computer keyboards.

The @ symbol has many different names around the world. In English, while still the "amphora" officially, it is most widely known as the "at sign." The names in German (at-Zeichen) and Japanese (atto maak) are similar. Spanish and Portuguese people call it the "arroba" and the French call it "arobase," (which translate as "amphora" in English). Italians call it "chiocciola" (snail); Swedes know it as the "kanelbulle" (cinnamon bun), while to Czechs it is "zavinac" (a rolled pickled herring served in pubs). In Hebrew it's the "shtrudel" (strudel), while, according to an article in The Industry Standard, the Finnish word--"miukumauku"--translates charmingly as "the sign of the meow," recalling a curled-up, sleeping cat.