(Note: a version of this post was published in December 2000 in the Industry Standard Europe magazine.)
The precise birth date of e-mail is unknown, but technology historians set it somewhere in late 1971, when a then 30-year old American computer engineer, Ray Tomlinson, did what he unassuming calls "a quick hack". He successfully sent the first electronic message from a computer to an account (his own account, in fact) on another computer.
This season, therefore, network e-mail turns 35.
Tomlinson (left in a recent picture from Unesco Digital Arts) is the man who picked the @ sign to separate the username from the hostname in the e-mail address syntax. In a phone interview a few years ago I asked him why he chose that specific symbol. He answered simply: "I scanned the keyboard for a sign that wouldn't appear on anyone's name, and couldn't therefore create any confusion". Incidentally, the @ carried an appropriate meaning, since in English, at least, it is the abbreviation for "at".
Thirty-five years later, the @ sign has become the ultimate contemporary pop icon, a sort of wallpaper of our daily communication space. Dozens of companies ave tried to hijack it - together with the values of modernity, connectedness, smart and speed that it embodies - and embed it into their brands and names and packaging. And the eccentric symbol is integral to the electronic identity of over one billion Internet users worldwide.
Usage of the @ sign to replace or "enhance" current words is also spreading. "CU 8.30 PM @ Bruno's", is a typical short message sent through mobile phones. In Spain, the @ sign is increasingly used among youngsters as a politically correct way of avoiding specifying gender: "Hola, amig@s!". The advertising industry, needless to say, is exploiting the symbol everywhere.
Paradoxically, the origins of the seemingly futuristic @ sign go way back - to the fifteenth century at least. There is even a possible genesis as early as the Middle Ages, although this is still a matter of controversy among linguists and palaeographers.
But first, a short diversion through some technicalities will explain why Tomlinson needed to put a separator in the e-mail addressee's scheme, and how he picked the @ sign. At that time, he was employed by a research centre of Bolt Beranek and Newman, a company located near Boston that had a government contract to work on the development of the ArpaNet, the precursor of the Internet. (When I spoke with him, he still worked there doing "pretty much the same job", he said).
The early seventies' network spanned 15 locations, mostly universities and research centres. Tomlinson was familiar with the existing messaging systems for solo computers, which had been developed since the mid-sixties, and had written one himself, called SNDMSG (read: "send message"). These programs allowed users sharing the same computer to exchange electronic notes by posting them to designated "mailboxes". Mailboxes were simple text files assigned that role.
The set-up meant the sender could add text at the bottom of an existing recipient's mailbox file, without being able to read or delete the previous messages. The next time the recipient logged into that same computer, he or she was notified ("You've got mail" was not invented by AOL) and could read the message.
E-mail had been invented but was limited to a single computer. However, through ArpaNet researchers could already transfer files between different machines. So Tomlinson began tinkering with SNDMSG and a file transfer software called CYPNET, figuring out that the latter could be adapted to transport messages and append them to a mailbox file situated in a different computer, much like SNDMSG would do locally. It only needed "a minor change in the protocol", he said.
In order for the messages to end up in the right mailbox on what was now a network of machines, Tomlinson had to devise a new address scheme that would identify not only the recipient, but also the computer where his mailbox was located. Hence the need for a separator - and his somewhat arbitrary choice of the @ sign. The first network e-mail address was tomlinson@bbn-tenexa, where Tenex is the operating system that was used at Bolt Beranek . The domains such as ".com" or ".net" and the national suffixes such as ".fr" would not be introduced for several years more years.
Tomlinson is remarkably modest about the whole thing. He doesn't remember the text of the first message he sent - he probably just typed "test" or "qwertyuiop" (the letters on the top line of a US keyboard) - and "it never occurred to me that it could be something more than a practical way to make communication with the other researchers easier", he explained during that interview.
Yet his choice of the @ sign stirred one of the first online controversies. Tomlinson's designation worked perfectly on Tenex, but there were rival operating systems used on ArpaNet computers. Whenever the @ was entered on computers based on Multics, for example, it was read as a "delete the current line" command, which made typing a network e-mail address impossible. This led to a hard-fought battle - comparable to the more recent Mac-PC almost-religious hostilities - that was resolved only ten years later, with changes in the Multics software.
Still, how did the @ sign end up in the computer keyboard? After all, before Tomlinson plumped for it, there was no apparent widespread use for the symbol.
Indeed, how did it originate at all? Linguists are divided. Some think that the @ sign originated in the early Middle Age, when monks transcribing manuscripts hit on it as time-saving contraction of the Latin word "ad, a common word, that can mean "at", "towards", or "by". This idea was advanced seventy years ago by American scholar Berthold Ullman. However, material evidence to substantiate it remains scant.
Until recently, the majority of linguists believe that the @ sign is of more recent conception, surfacing some time during the eighteenth century as a commercial symbol indicating the price per unit of a product, as in "5 apples @ 10 pence". French researcher Denis Muzerelle thinks that it is the result of another twist in calligraphy, when the word "à" used by French and German merchants began to be hastily written as @.
But a few years ago another expert, Giorgio Stabile of the University of Rome, produced Venitian commercial documents from around 1500 where the @ sign appears (see the image at right). Here it is an icon representing another quantity signifier, the "anfora" or jar. Stabile also found a Latin-Spanish dictionary of 1492 where "anfora" is translated into "arroba", a measure of weight that indicates about 12.5 kilograms. The word comes probably from the Arabic "ar-roub", which, again, is used as a unit of measure, meaning "one-quarter".
All this suggests that the @ sign existed, from the fifteenth century on, in both the Spanish-Arabic and in the Graeco-Roman worlds, as a commercial symbol used to indicate quantities of products - although it represented different magnitudes from region to region. Hence it became inevitable that the "commercial a" was included in the first typewriter keyboards, starting at the end of 1800s with Underwood’s original model. From there, it migrated into the standard computing characters (ASCII) eighty years later.
The biggest frustration with the @ sign nowadays, is how to pronounce and what to call it - those who have tried to spell their e-mail address on the phone in languages other than English will know what I'm talking about. The list at left is taken from the research I did in 2000. Spaniards and Portuguese still use "arroba" - which the French have borrowed and turned into "arobase". Americans and Britons, of course, use "at-sign". Derivatives of that are being imported into other languages, such as the German "at-Zeichen", the Estonian "ät-märk" or the Japanese "atto maak", or in the plain "at" form.
However, in most languages the sign is described using a jumble of metaphors lifted from daily life. References to animals are the most common. Germans, Dutch, Finns, Hungarians, Polish and South Africans see it as a monkey tail. The snail - in a paradoxical twist, because "snail mail" is slang for the slow postal alternative to the speedy e-mail - portrays the @ sign in French ("petit escargot") and Italian ("chiocciola"), but also in Hebrew, Korean, and Esperanto ("heliko"). Meanwhile, the Danes and the Swedes may call it "snabel-a", the A with an elephant's trunk; the Hungarian a worm; the Norwegians a pig's tail; the Chinese a little mouse; and the Russians a dog.
Food is also a rich source of names. Some Swedes favour the cinnamon bun ("kanelbulle"). The Czechs have been inspired by the rollmop herring ("zavinac") consumed in Prague's bars. Spaniards call it sometimes "ensaimada", which is a sort of sweet, spiral-shaped bagel typically made in Mallorca. And in Hebrew they use "shtrudl" (or "strudel"), as in the well-known roll-shaped pastry.
My firm favourite is the Finnish "miukumauku", the "sign of the meow", probably inspired by a curled-up, sleeping cat.