The Internet at the Speed of Thought

The Man Behind the @ Symbol

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The Surprising History of the @

Imagine a world without the @ symbol. Given the sign’s increasingly popular usage on platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook–not to mention that it’s the foundation of all email–you probably can’t.

But like most computer slang and internet shortcuts, the @ symbol has a lengthy history, and the sign in its contemporary usage even has a creator. Sadly, that man, Ray Tomlinson, died on March 5. He was 74 years old.

How familiar are you with the @ sign? You might be surprised to learn how important it was to cultures across the world centuries before Tomlinson selected it as the very foundation of modern day email.

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Source: Twitter @HistoricalPics @gmail

Turns out the @ was nearly as important in the Middle Ages as it is today…

Though you might never suspect it while tagging people on social media, the @ has been around since at least 1345.

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In the earliest discovered reference, a Bulgarian translation of a Greek chronicle pictured above, the @ symbol is inexplicably used instead of a capital “A” in the final “Amen.”

To this day, the @’s early usage remains a mystery, though many hypotheses have been put forward. In the photo below, the @ symbol can be seen in a shipping registry from 1448.

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Among these theories are that it was an easier way of writing the Latin ad (by, toward, at, about), combining the ad with an old form of the lowercase d, ∂.

Separately, as the symbol is traditionally used in accounting and economics, it’s been theorized that the @ was made to distinguish the individual price of an item from the price of a group of items. Thus, @ was a combination of the “e” and “a” from “each at,” as opposed to simply using “per.” E.g.: “10 widgets @ $1” would cost $10, whereas “10 widgets at $1” would cost $1.