Robert Fulford's column about the history of @

(The National Post, May 22, 2001)

A few years ago a Barcelona theatre company, La Fura dels Baus, developed a musical version of Goethe's most famous drama, the one about the fellow who sells his soul to the Devil. Because it was a highly experimental work, they needed a title that sounded up-to-the-minute. So they turned to computer language and settled on F@ust: Version 3.0. The appearance of that show in New York in 1998 turned out to be another landmark in the bizarre career of @, the symbol that is now part of the decor of this age, omnipresent in print and television.

At least, that's how I reconstruct a bit of its recent cultural history. It had already been put to similar imaginative use elsewhere, in relatively isolated ways, but the Lincoln Center advertising for F@ust: Version 3.0 apparently caught the attention of designers and editors looking for ways to inject life or flavour into otherwise routine phrases. Certainly 1998 was the year the avalanche of @ usage began. In 1999 Bill Gates called his book Business @ the Speed of Thought. Later that year The Wall Street Journal noted that @ was becoming a "with-it symbol, an instant emblem of the digital age." It's been spreading ever since. Now, apparently, about half the graphic designers in the world think it's just the cleverest little thing. They have an annoying way of using it as if they had just come up with a fresh idea.

At the moment the Discovery Channel has a program called, the Movie Channel has a series called @ The Movies, CNN has a show called Live@Daybreak, ABC News has a feature called @issue, and The Toronto Star has both a section called @Biz and a column headed Where it's @. The tourist information service for Los Angeles goes under the name @LA, there's an information program called Fight AIDS @Home, and there's even an outfit called Zen@Metalab, which distributes koans and other Zen Buddhist material. The @ has acquired the particular comfort of a cliché: It feels current and reassuringly right, like saying "Don't go there" or "Thinking outside the box."

What makes this especially remarkable is that @ nearly disappeared from the Earth a few generations ago. It's the Cinderella of pictographs, once despised and disdained but now elevated to first place among typographic symbols. Currently it appears billions of times a day in e-mails.

It began life in the Middle Ages. Berthold L. Ullman says in Ancient Writing and Its Influence (1932) that this strudel-shaped sign was created by monks in the scriptoria as an abbreviation of the common Latin word "ad," which can mean, depending on the context, "to," "toward," "near" or "at." The monks wrote "a" and then curled part of the "d" around it. After a millennium or so, @ moved over into business as a way of indicating unit prices. In an account book or an invoice, people would write "5 men's belts @$1.20" or "10 lb. sugar @20 cents." I picture the people who used it sitting at rolltop desks and wearing sleeve garters.

It began appearing on typewriter keyboards in the 1880s, and soon after on the keyboards of linotype and other word-handling machines. It slowly fell from fashion in business during the first half of the 20th century, but never lost its place on the machines, apparently because no one thought of eliminating it. So it was still part of the teletype keyboard (used by telegraphy companies and news agencies) in the 1970s, when that keyboard was standard in computer labs and e-mail was invented.

The inventor, who is now a legend in computer circles but otherwise unknown, was a 30-year-old MIT graduate named Ray Tomlinson. This young engineer changed the way the world communicates, and inserted @ into all the languages of the world. He was just barely conscious that he might be doing something world-shaking. It seemed to him then, as it seems to him now, that every move he made was merely another detail in a long chain of inventions made by hundreds of engineers.

He was working in Cambridge, Mass., for Bolt Beranek & Newman, one of the computer companies assigned by the Pentagon to build what became the Internet. He was working on a way to transfer files among the 15 American computers linked to the network. He needed to indicate that a file was moving between computers rather than within just one, so he chose @: "I used the @ sign to indicate that the user was 'at' some other host rather than being local." His lab contained two computers, separately wired to the network, so in 1972 his first message went from one of the company's computers to the other, in the same room but via the network. He created the first e-mail address: tomlinson@bbn-tenexa.

Unfortunately, he didn't have the presence of mind or historical self-consciousness to send a message that we could quote for the next century or so. He certainly didn't imitate Samuel Morse, who in 1844 gave the opening of the telegraphy era a grand rhetorical flourish by transmitting, in dot-dash code, "What hath God wrought!" Alas, Tomlinson can't remember quite what his message said, but he thinks it was probably QWERTYUIOP, the top line of letters on the standard keyboard. (He sent it in capitals, which today would be considered rude.)

Despite its global usage, @ today remains without a real name in the English language; nothing to compare with ampersand (&) or tilde (~). In some parts of the world it's been called a snail, an elephant's trunk, and a monkey's tail, but English has no equivalent description. Our dictionaries can't do any better than "at," "per," "priced at," or "commercial at" -- all of which entirely ignore the vibrant new life that @ has been experiencing in recent years.

Should it be allowed to float namelessly through cyberspace forever? Given that we know who resurrected it, and given that he made nothing but his regular salary inventing e-mail, it seems only right and just that @ should be officially named "the tomlinson."

Read Robert Fulford's follow-up column about the many names of @.

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