Simanaitis Says

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ONCE A MERE substitute for “at the rate of,” as in “3 apples @ 25¢ each,” the symbol @ has thrived to travel the world on the Internet. It punctuates e-mail addresses, announces Twitter usernames, and is a familiar marketing symbol.

But wherever did th@t come from?

Once again, I turn to Keith Huston’s most informative book Shady Characters.

Technically, @ is a grammalogue, a shorthand notation, for “at.” Its history stretches back to the Roman Empire, then evolves through scribal abbreviations, the “commercial a,” the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, and the U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. A heady history indeed.

This and the following images from Shady Characters.

The Roman Amphora. Huston recounts the work of Georgio Stabile, an Italian researcher who in 2000 published a paper investigating the @ symbol. In particular, ancient Greeks and Romans had long-necked pottery eventually known as amphorae, used for transporting everything from cereals to wine. In time, a standard Roman amphora had a volume of about one cubic foot.

Scribes Abbreviate, Sometimes in Haste. Units cry out for abbreviation, and scribes started with the familiar usage of a bar above a word’s first letter: ā for amphora. This was only a hasty scribe’s pen dash away from @.

And, indeed, Stabile found a correspondence dating from 1536 that used the symbol @ as abbreviation for the amphora unit.

In Francesco Lapi’s letter of May 4, 1536, the symbol @ stands for “amphora.”

The Commercial a. By the late 19th century, the symbol @ acquired the name “commercial a” because of its “at the rate of” business application. However, new gizmos called typewriters didn’t help matters at first.

The Traveling @. It didn’t take long for typewriter keyboards to standardize the alphabet. Arrangements similar to the familiar QWERTY appeared as early as 1873. Though @ was included, it was very much a hunt-and-peck afterthought. Little by little, the symbol settled down to its “cap 2” locale.

The @ traveled around: a sample of its locations from 1884 to 1921.

ASCII To The Rescue. By the early 1960s, computerization pushed for common usage in ASCII, as in American Standard Code for Information Interchange. ASCII became recognized internationally—and imagine the chaos, were this not the case.

SI… ALORS…. Or what about 為す 10, イ=1, ノ極大.

ARPANET Connects Us All, Eventually. In the late 1960s, the U.S Advanced Research Project Agency devised ARPANET, a means of linking distant computers by sending packets of information through a network.

In 1971, Ray Tomlinson was a twenty-nine-year-old computer engineer at Bolt, Bernek and Newman, a consulting firm hired by the agency to work on ARPANET development. A format was required to identify the source of a packet, and Tomlinson just happened to be familiar with the ubiquitous Teletype ASR-33 teleprinter.

Keyboard of an ASR-33 teleprinter, with P/@.

Tomlinson suggested the format “user @ host” for several reasons. The @ was unlikely to occur in user names; it had no significant meaning in computer operating systems; and it was even understandable to humans in the sense of a user at a host.

It’s quite a path from Roman amphorae, but a logical one. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

One comment on “WHERE’S TH@T @T?

  1. jlalbrecht64
    May 27, 2018

    FYI: German has more letters than English and thus more keys on the keyboard, including two different “alt” keys. “@” is right-alt (“alt-Gr”) + Q. Maybe because it looks kind of similar to a “Q?”

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