The humble @ symbol has become an official design icon — a sign of our times.
The @, first used as an accountancy symbol but now ubiquitous as the sign that binds billions of e-mails together, has been “added” by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to its architecture and design collection.
MOMA cited the symbol’s “elegance, economy, intellectual transparency”. The @ joins such luminaries as the Volkswagen Beetle as practical inventions that the museum says have important artistic value.
“The @ symbol is now part of the very fabric of life all over the world,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the Department of Architecture and Design. “It has truly become a way of expressing society’s changing technological and social relationships, expressing new forms of behavior and interaction in a new world,” she said
It is thought that @ dates back to the sixth or seventh century, a fusion of the the Latin preposition ad — meaning “at”, “to,” or “toward” — into one pen stroke. The symbol developed as a mercantile shorthand symbol of “each at” or “at the rate of”. It also came to mean an “amphora” jar unit of measurement in Italy in the 16th century.
The @ then appeared on the keyboard of the first typewriter, the American Underwood, in 1885. It was used, mostly in accounting documents, as shorthand for “at the rate of”. It remained an obscure keyboard character until 1971 when an American computer programmer, Raymond Tomlinson, added it to the address of the first e-mail messages. Mr Tomlinson was working for the Boston firm of Bolt, Beranek and Newman on Arpanet, the then new computer network that was the predecessor of the modern-day internet.
He created a messaging system, sending short communications between computers ten feet apart — inventing the system we now know as e-mail. Unfortunately, he failed to record the first e-mail — the first messages were just tests. “The first e-mail is completely forgettable,” he told NPR. “And, therefore, forgotten.”
The @ is now so embedded in our communications that different cultures have come up with different affectionate names for the symbol. In Germay, Poland and South Africa, it is called the “monkey’s tail”, in China “little mouse” and for the French and Italians it is the “little snail”. The Swedes call it snabel-a — “elephant’s trunk-a” or kanelbulle, after the Cinnamon roll pastry.
MOMA said its “acquisition” of @ was purely symbolic, but it would be mounting exhibitions of the sign in various typefaces.