One week ago, on March 5th, Ray Tomlinson died at the age of 75 of a suspected heart attack. Ray was the father of the modern e-mail system and the man who chose the @ symbol to connect senders and addresses.
According to William F. Allman in the Smithsonian Magazine:
'At that time [Late 60s/early 70s], each programmer was typically connected to a particular mainframe machine via a phone connection and a teletype machine—basically a keyboard with a built-in printer. But these computers weren’t connected to one another, a shortcoming the U.S. government sought to overcome when it hired BBN Technologies, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, company Tomlinson worked for, to help develop a network called Arpanet, forerunner of the Internet.'
'Tomlinson’s challenge was how to address a message created by one person and sent through Arpanet to someone at a different computer. The address needed an individual’s name, he reasoned, as well as the name of the computer, which might service many users. And the symbol separating those two address elements could not already be widely used in programs and operating systems, lest computers be confused.
Tomlinson’s eyes fell on @, poised above “P” on his Model 33 teletype. “I was mostly looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much,” he told Smithsonian. “And there weren’t a lot of options—an exclamation point or a comma. I could have used an equal sign, but that wouldn’t have made much sense.”
Tomlinson chose @—“probably saving it from going the way of the ‘cent’ sign on computer keyboards,” he says. Using his naming system, he sent himself an e-mail, which travelled from one teletype in his room, through Arpanet, and back to a different teletype in his room.'According to his official profile on the Internet Hall of Fame:
'Raymond Samuel Tomlinson was born in Amsterdam, New York in 1941. He attended college at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he participated in an internship program with IBM and received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering in 1963. He then went on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earning an S.M. in electrical engineering in 1965.' He is ranked number four on the MIT list of top 150 innovators and ideas from MIT.
Tomlinson's email program brought about a complete revolution, fundamentally changing the way people communicate, including the way businesses, from huge corporations to tiny mom-and-pop shops, operate and the way millions of people shop, bank, and keep in touch with friends and family, whether they are across town or across oceans. Today, tens of millions of email-enabled devices are in use every day. Email remains the most popular application, with over a billion and a half users spanning the globe and communicating across the traditional barriers of time and space.
According to The Independent obituary by Sarah Skidmore Sell, he said the first text messages were "entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them."
"I'm often asked did I know what I was doing? The answer is Yeah. I knew exactly what I was doing. I just had no notion whatsoever about what the ultimate impact would be."
BBN was later acquired by Raytheon and Tomlinson was still working for them as a principal scientist at the time of his death. Sell reports: 'He lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where he raised miniature sheep with his partner.'
THE @ SYMBOL
There this post might have ended if I hadn't asked myself 'Where did the @ symbol orighinally come from and when did it appear on typewriters ?'. According to 'The Acccidental History of the @ Symbol' by William F. Allman [Smithsonian Magazine/September 2012]:
'The origin of the symbol itself, one of the most graceful characters on the keyboard, is something of a mystery. 'One theory is that medieval monks, looking for shortcuts while copying manuscripts, converted the Latin word for “toward”—ad—to “a” with the back part of the “d” as a tail. 'Or it came from the French word for “at”—à—and scribes, striving for efficiency, swept the nib of the pen around the top and side. 'Or the symbol evolved from an abbreviation of “each at”—the “a” being encased by an “e.”
According to Philip Willan in an article entitled 'merchant@florence wrote it first 500 years ago' (The Guardian/31st July 2000), the first hard evidence of the use of the @ sign came in July 2000 when Giorgio Stabile, a professor of the history of science at La Sapienza University in Rome 'stumbled on the earliest known example of the symbol's use, as an indication of a measure of weight or volume.'
"Until now no one knew that the @ sign derived from this symbol, which was developed by Italian traders in a mercantile script they created between the middle ages and the renaissance," Prof Stabile said. "The loop around the 'a' is typical of that merchant script."
It was in a letter sent from Seville to Rome on 4th May 1536, written by a Florentine trader named Francesco Lapi, describing the arrival in Spain of three ships carrying treasure from the Americas. It read in part: "There, an amphora of wine, which is one thirtieth of a barrel, is worth 70 or 80 ducats," The amphora is represented by an @ sign. Amphoras were terracotta jars of standard size used to transport grain and liquid in the ancient Mediterranean world.
The Spanish word for the @ sign, arroba , also indicates a weight or measure, which was equivalent, at the end of the 16th century, to 11.3kg (25 lb) or 22.7 litres (six gallons).
As it made its way along trade routes to northern Europe, the @ sign also took on its contemporary accountancy meaning: "at the price of".
Professor Stabile believes that earlier documents bearing this symbol may be lying forgotten in the archives of Italian banks. "Venice is the maritime city that continued to use the amphora weight unit the longest, but Florence is the foremost city of banking. The race is on to see who has the oldest document."
"No symbol is born of chance. This one has represented the entire history of navigation on the oceans and has now come to typify travel in cyberspace," Prof Stabile said.
THE GENERALIST has spent some considerable time trying to ascertain when and why the @ symbol became added to the typewriter keyboard but with no success. The first commercially successful machine was the Sholes and Glidden typewriter, known as the Remington No 1, which was launched in 1874, introduced the QWERTY keyboard. Its successor Remington 2 (1878) introduced the shift key.
The Webopedia entry on the @ sign says it became a standard key on typewriter keyboards in the 1880s (contradicted by more authoratative sources) and a standard on QWERTY keyboards in the 1940s (no explanation of why).
According to the same source, although the @ symbol is used worldwide in e-mails, countries have different names for it than the English which just refers to it as the 'at sign'. Here is their wonderful list: