It’s what our e-mail addresses hinge on. It’s the umbilical cord that attaches us to our Twitter handles. It’s the ethereal semaphore for sending private messages to others.
But before all of that, it was a bookkeeper’s shorthand. The symbol appeared in in 1536, in a letter by an Italian merchant, who wrote it to mean “amphora” (a terracotta jar, employed as a unit of measure.)
Later, it was an invoicing abbreviation that denoted, “at the rate of,” like so: “4 loaves of bread @ 10 cents each.”
It remained confined to the world of commerce until, in the early 20th century, it appeared on what would go on to become a famous literary tool—the typewriter, of course.
When salesmen saw number crunchers buying these machines in the droves, they were quick to include the “@” sign on keytops, for their benefit. All Underwood No. 5 models, from the 1900 onward carried it. Even so, it didn’t gain popularity.
Then, in 1971, all of a sudden, it was yanked out of obscurity by an engineer named Ray Tomlinson, who, while working on an ARPAnet (the ancestor of the Internet) project, observed the novelty emblem, sharing space with the “P” key on his Teletype 33 ASR (a glorified typewriter that could send and receive typed messages.)
In sending what would go down in history as the maiden e-mail, he put it down it to separate the programmer from his machine. During the dotcom era, it became a tacky tech cliché—something you’d stick on everything just to distinguish it from anything analog.
It could have faded into oblivion, had it not been for Twitter, which infused it with a fresh meaning—yet again.