Remembering defining symbol of our digital age
The first time the “@” symbol was used — which was 480 years ago — it had nothing to do with e-mail or identity, but rather weight.
Florentine merchant Francesco Lapi used the now ubiquitous symbol in a letter written on May 4 1536, to describe the weight or volume (known as an amphora) of terracotta jars.
These jars were used to hold liquid or grain when they were transported on ships, according to the Italian academic who first uncovered the letter.
“There, an amphora of wine, which is one thirtieth of a barrel, is worth 70 or 80 ducats,” Lapi wrote, referring to the price of goods aboard three Spanish ships that had arrived in Seville from the Americas. In his elegant handwriting the word “amphora” is represented by the @ symbol.
Lapi’s letter was uncovered by Prof Giorgio Stabile of La Sapienza University, who told The Guardian in 2000: “Until now no-one knew that the @ sign derived from this symbol, which was developed by Italian traders in a mercantile script they created between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The loop around the ‘a’ is typical of that merchant script.”
It is one of the quirky things about our radical new digital world that reminds us of how practical and analogue the world really is, or was.
As befits a communication medium that is now, frankly, out of control, the man who invented and sent the first e-mail didn’t remember what his first missive said.
“I sent a number of test messages to myself from one machine to the other. The test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them,” said Ray Tomlinson, the pioneering American computer programmer who died this month aged 74.
The irony is delightful; as is the rather pragmatic reason he chose the @ symbol. “I chose to append an @ sign and the host name to the user’s (login) name. I am frequently asked why I chose the @ sign, but the @ sign just makes sense.
“The purpose of the sign (in English) was to indicate a unit price (for example, 10 items @ $1.95). I used the sign to indicate that the user was “at” some other host rather than being local.”
Tomlinson invented e-mail in 1971, when computer networks were usually only on American university campuses and military installations and were used mostly for academic research. Such computers — famously dismissed by IBM chairman Thomas Watson in 1943 when he said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” — were still the size of a room.
Most of us now have computers in our pockets — smartphones — that are often compared to the lowly computational machine that landed people on the moon.
From such humble beginnings, the @ symbol is now the defining symbol of the digital age. It is used not only for e-mail, but on Twitter to identify and tag other users — and now on a plethora of other social media and communication networks.
Despite appearances to the contrary, e-mail has been in decline for years as the preferred medium of communication. App-based messaging has long since overtaken e-mail for primacy, especially among the youth.
More people now send short instant messages via such platforms as Facebook’s Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram and Skype. They also send Web links, video clips and pictures (including the quirky animated gif); as well as contacts and map locations.
But e-mail is not going anywhere and remains the standard for corporate communication, even as its role has expanded to include attachments so varied and diverse as being able to handle almost any digital file. There’s so much of it that we just can’t read all our e-mail.
Meanwhile, our in-boxes have also become our to-do lists — yet another unforeseen implication of a nearly 500-year-old symbol and a 45-year-old technology.
Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine
This article first appeared in the Financial Mail