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.

(Michalko)

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About Jim Michalko

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

  1. 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!

  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. 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

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