While the @ symbol might date back to the 6th century as a symbol meant to be shorthand for the Latin ad (meaning “at”, “to”, or “toward”) it was first recorded in 1536 in a letter (pictured above) from an Italian merchant to denote a unit of measure, amphora, which was a wine vessel of a standard size used by Italian merchants (who got the vase-like shape from the Greeks).

Untitled_design_1.png amphoras from the ruins of Pompeii, Italy

Sometime later, it was fully integrated into commercial use to signify “at” or “at the rate of”. For instance, 3 books @ $5 would mean $15. While this use of @ was frequently used in commerce and bookkeeping, it was used casually and colloquially until the mid-late 1800s when it began to be officially recognized by general society. At this point, it began appearing on typewriters (the American Underwood, initially) and was defined in the American Dictionary of Printing and Bookmaking in 1894 as the “commercial ‘a’: a mark used instead of at or to, the latter usually in American printing-offices, as: It was sold @ 91 cents a pound”.

Untitled_design_2.png Underwood typewriter model 1

The @ symbol’s modern usage began in 1971 when Ray Tomlinson, an engineer at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), created the first email system as a part of a project contracted to BBN by the US Department of Defense. This project, ARPAnet, was an “early network from which the Internet later emerged”. When designing the email address, he reasoned that the “address needed an individual name as well as the name of the computer which might service many users”. Thus, the name@domain address was born. He chose the @ symbol because of its relative obscurity. It wasn’t widely used at the time, and he wanted something that wouldn’t be mistaken for anything else—especially by the computer operating system itself. The first email was sent using a Teletype Model ASR 33, pictured below.

Untitled_design.png Teletype Model ASR 33

The way the @ symbol is used shifted again in 2006 with the invention of Twitter. Creators Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Biz Stone, and Noah Glass used the @ symbol to denote an individual’s username or Twitter handle. Users could “tag” each other in their tweets by typing @username in a system known as Twitter mentions. This method of tagging using the @ symbol carried over into other social media sites like YouTube and Facebook.

What’s next for the @ symbol? Only time will tell!