40 Years @ – Brief History of a Ligature

Ray Tomlinson is going to celebrate a milestone birthday this year. The American pioneer of computer programming turns 70, congratulations! Tomlinson’s most important widget, resulting as a by-product of him developing ARPANET applications for BBN in Cambridge, is being used since 1971. Quite a long period just in the hemisphere of scientists and military men, though – till the internet grew to a medium of mass communication 20 years ago.

If the jubilarian de facto invented  digital mail is disputed – he considers himself the creator of “the first network email“. One thing is undoubted: the @-sign as marker of identification was introduced to the digital world by Mr. Tomlinson. He used it to divide the name of the mainframe from user-login and to create unique addresses. This procedure didn’t change down to the present day. But actually where does this strange symbol come from?

The conflation of the two characters a and t (more likely: a and d) in written language is much older than the first computers are. Medieval monks were the ones who used this technique in their scriptoriums. Ligatures were a way to save time, very welcome to shorten the stupidity of copying. The latin word “ad” became @ during this process. As a symbol it survived in the modern period on the Iberian Peninsula as the sign for a measure, in jurisdiction it was used to part two litigants (in the meaning of “contra”).

Its way to the keyboard of Ray Tomlinson the @ took as a Anglo-Saxon mercantile shorthand symbol. As a relict of times passed it was still present on the console of the model 33 Teletype Tomlinson used back in 1971. A late triumph started. Or as the US National Public Radio phrased in usual emotive style:  “Tomlinson is (…) responsible for the elevation of the @ sign from symbol to icon.

By the way: Since last year, the @ is at MoMA. What a career!

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