Though it has no single, widely-used name in English (aside from “at” or “the at sign/ symbol”), the @ has been used for centuries in Spanish and Portuguese trade under the name arroba, derived from the Arabic الربع for “a quarter.”
Since the Middle Ages, the @ was used in mercantilism as a unit of weight. Interestingly enough, while based on the maximum weight a donkey or mule could carry, an arroba came to equal 32 pounds in Portugal and 25 pounds in Spain.
The arroba is still used by cork merchants in Portugal today, as well as by Brazilian cattle traders. This unit of measurement is also used in Peru and Bolivia, where its value changes regionally.
In modern times, the @ has been used commercially to mean “at the rate of” and has been present on some typewriters since at least 1889.
Nowadays, of course, the @ is universal on computer keyboards.
Still, our contemporary everyday usage of the @ may never have even come close to being second-nature if it weren’t for Ray Tomlinson.
RIP Ray Tomlinson. The man who invented and sent the first email. You are a modern day hero. pic.twitter.com/kkNhQ1r6Nl
— Historical Pics (@HistoricalPics) March 6, 2016
Born in Upstate New York in 1941, Ray Tomlinson went on to become a pioneering computer programmer who fundamentally changed how people communicated when he introduced email in 1971. Though electronic mail on the same computer was already existence, Tomlinson made it possible for users on different hosts to communicate with each other, and it all came down to the @ sign, which denoted the user and the host.
Tomlinson died on March 5 in Lincoln, Massachusetts from a suspected heart attack. He was 74 years old.
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