Where It’s @

You see it and use it every day. It’s become the universal symbol of the Information Age. In France it’s known as le petit escargot, the little snail. In Germany it’s the klam-meraffe, the spider monkey. In Israel it’s the strudel, as in the pastry. In Spain it’s the arroba, a unit of weight equalling 25 pounds. In England it’s called the cabbage.

It is, of course, the @ sign. It derives from the Latin ad, which means toward or at, and in North America, according to the research desk at the Boston Public Library, it’s formally known as the commercial A, due to its centuries-old use in commerce and bookkeeping (for example, “Five widgets @ $1.25 = $6.25”).

The man who first used it in its now ubiquitous sense as an e-mail marker is Ray Tomlinson. In 1971, Tomlinson, then a programmer at Cambridge, Mass.-based high-tech firm Bolt Beranek and Newman (now known as GTE Internetworking Inc.), wrote the first e-mail software.

According to Tomlinson, who is now a principal engineer at GTE Internetworking, he chose the @ sign because he was looking for a punctuation mark that would never appear in a person’s name. In 1972, Tomlinson sent the first e-mail message over the Arpanet, the ancient Internet-like research network of universities and government and military agencies.

Tomlinson says he gets two or three calls a month from people asking about his little invention, e-mail. What was the first e-mail message? “QWERTYUIOP,” or the first row of letters on a standard keyboard. Not as elegant, perhaps, as “Mr. Watson, come here,” Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone message, but we live in more practical times.