An @ symbol by any other name is also sweet

May 11, 2009

by Mark Ollig

How many times a day do we find ourselves using this symbol?

Why this symbol? Where did it originate? Who used it in the first e-mail message, and what year did it occur?

Recently I read in a New York Times blog, called The Lede, an article which said the first use of the “@” symbol was in the year 1536.

Now, I might be approaching senility, but even I know e-mail was not being used 473 years ago. I mean . . . where would they have plugged in the computer?

The famous “at sign” was first used, according to Wired magazine’s Tony Long, by a Florentine merchant named Francesco Lapi who used the symbol “@” in a hand-written letter he wrote May 4, 1536.

For all my readers who recently celebrated “Star Wars Day” May 4, I just want to impart a little solidarity using those famous words, “May the 4th be with you.”

The use of the “@” sign from my earliest memories was seen on signs in the local stores.

A store sign advertising cartons of a product on the shelf would say: “5 cartons @ $1.99 each.”

So, the “@” sign was used for commerce reasons.

I found the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica,” which reported back in 2000 that Giorgio Stabile, a professor of the history of science at La Sapienza University in Rome, had found the “@” symbol in a merchant letter. The “@,” or “amphora,” referred to a unit for measuring the weight, volume liquids or bulk goods in the Roman Empire.

According to Stabile, Francesco Lapi’s letter was sent from Seville Spain to a colleague in Rome and described the cargo on the three ships that had just returned to Spain from Latin America.

“There, an amphora of wine, which is one 30th of a barrel, is worth 70 or 80 ducats,” Mr. Lapi wrote in his letter. Lapi represented the “amphora” with the now familiar symbol of an “a” wrapped in its own tail, thus appearing as the now familiar @ sign.

Here is a link where I made the Italian translation to English: http://tinyurl.com/cala4m.

The “@” symbol found its way onto typewriter keyboards after having evolved over the years because of its use as an accounting shorthand phrase meaning “at the price of.”

In 1971, an engineer by the name of Ray Tomlinson saw this symbol on his teletype keyboard and made it the character to be used in the first e-mail address.

When Tomlinson was asked why he choose the @ sign, he said “The primary reason was that it made sense. Amphoras didn’t appear in names so there would be no ambiguity about where the separation between login name and host name occurred. I used the “at sign” to indicate that the user was “at” some other host rather than being local.”

Tomlinson wrote a programming computer code called SNDMSG. By using the “@” symbol, he was able to direct a mail message to be sent out to a totally separate computer system over the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). The ARPANET, as you know, is the predecessor of today’s Internet network.

The first e-mail message was sent in late 1971, by Ray Tomlinson between two different computers which were side-by-side on the same floor. The network connection was through the APRANET.

Tomlinson said the first e-mail message he sent likely contained the word “QUERTYIOP or something similar.”

Tomlinson mentioned on his web site that it is frequently said he invented the “@”sign. To this, he responds “No, I did not invent the at sign!”

I wonder also about the hyphen use. I mean, is it “e-mail” or “email.” The “e” stood for “electronic” so we initially were calling these messages “electronic mail,” but enough time has passed in this humble columnist’s opinion that we should simply incorporate the word “email” into our everyday verbiage.

Out of curiosity I did a Google search and came up with 4,900,000,000 mentions of “e-mail” and 2,870,000,000 mentions of “email.” Technically, “e-mail” is today’s currently preferred journalistic style.

This week’s “Web Site of The Week” finds the bits_blogger busily posting interesting historical information about the first e-mail. Forum readers will also see a picture of the actual two computers and teletype machines from which the first e-mail message was sent and received.