Pick of the week – ATF 20 April 2010

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@ at MoMA  (External site)

Inside/Out (MoMA)  •  March 22, 2010

History lesson. The “@” is ubiquitous in today’s digital environment, but did you ever wonder about its origins? Read on for a quick history of where the symbol came from, how it was selected for use in e-mail addresses and how it’s viewed in other countries.

I enjoyed this a lot. Other notices of this move on the part of MOMA focused on the slightly wacky (to me) notion that you can add to a “collection” without taking possession. But this is a fun history that reminded me of a discussion we had some time ago about the name of this symbol—#. Is it the pound sign, the hash mark, the number sign or the octothorpe? That last has a rich and uncertain history. Some links led me to this old news group exchange between telephone engineers now archived by MIT. It’s worth a look to see the early (ca. 1988) e-mail strings with some of the engineers involved in the supposed naming weighing in.


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Jim coordinates the OCLC Research office in San Mateo, CA, focuses on relationships with research libraries and work that renovates the library value proposition in the current information environment.

3 Comments on “Pick of the week – ATF 20 April 2010”

  1. Chris, Glad you’re reading ATF. And, of course, I was speaking American English, when I mentioned that “#” was often called a ‘pound’ sign. As in measure not sterling. Best, Jim

  2. Chris: The @ at MoMA article answers your question: In 1967, American electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson joined the technology company of Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), where he created the world’s first e-mail system…In January 1971, @ was an underused jargon symbol lingering on the keyboard and marred by a very limited register. By October, Tomlinson had rediscovered and appropriated it, imbuing it with new meaning and elevating it to defining symbol of the computer age. He chose the @ for his first e-mail because of its strong locative sense—an individual, identified by a username, is @ this institution/computer/server, and also because…it was already there, on the keyboard, and nobody ever used it.

  3. Ahem Jim, the quote wasn’t about the ubiquitous @ but the # sign. I don’t know why the latter could ever be called a pound sign as it is a completely different shape. I can include a £ here, but suspect it won;’t turn out right overseas (it’s shift-3 for me).

    I would be interested in who chose the @ for email addresses, though!

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