The Surprising Origin Of The 'At' Symbol

Whether you've been on the internet since its inception, or even if you don't use the internet at all, you've definitely seen the at symbol. Or at least recognize it. The symbol's most common usage is in emails. The first half of an email consists of a combination of letters or numbers followed by a website address that hosts it. But holding those halves of that email address together is a symbol for the word: at, or as it's better recognized, @. Every keyboard has a special key designated for the symbol to easily type it and it's used to designate the email name from the email host site. The symbol acts as a binding glue for every email in existence, and it is also one of the most commonly used internet symbols, per K International.

While most people refer to it as the 'at' symbol or simply use its actual symbol, it is also called ampersat, asperand, or arobase — all official terms for it, says Word Hippo. Aside from email addresses, people also use it as a quick way to write the word 'at,' instead of writing it out. And it's commonly used in texting and online communication. In addition, many social media platforms and productivity applications like Twitter and Slack have employed the use of the symbol on their websites to precede usernames. So where did this frequently-used  symbol come from?

The 'at' symbol is introduced to the internet

As you can imagine, the at symbol being on nearly every manufactured keyboard means that it's been around for a long time. The first use of it on the internet was in 1971, according to Smithsonian Magazine. And it was all thanks to a computer programmer named Ray Tomlinson (pictured), who brought back the at symbol from the depths of irrelevance when he used it to send the very first email. From then on, the internet was changed forever.

The symbol had predated the internet but its presence on the '70s-era keyboard was gold for Tomlinson, who needed something to differentiate the email name and host addresses. He happened to land his eyes on this character symbol that hardly anyone was using at the time, and utilized it as a separator.

One of the first electric typewriters was the teletype. Tomlinson had the Model 33 version to send his historic message. Prior to that, most typing was done on typewriters. But with the advent of the teletype came the return of a symbol that was commonly used and left off of the traditional typewriter — the at symbol.

Origins of the 'at' symbol

The at symbol was often used for business purposes. Centuries ago merchants used the symbol to indicate a measurement of something for sale. They would write the price of something and promote deals by using @ in place of 'at.' It was thought of as shorthand. The first recorded use of the 'at' symbol is from the 16th century. An Italian merchant in the city of Florence used the symbol in a letter in 1536, per The Guardian. His name was Francesco Lapi and he used it as a sign to describe a container called an amphora. Merchants often used amphoras to carry a variety of foods or liquids.

He created a new symbol, and afterwards merchants continued to use it. But when the typewriter was invented, it did not have the symbol. Even as typewriters evolved to include newer symbols, such as the ampersand, the 'at' (or ampersat) never found its own way on the machine. That is, until the creation of the teletype. Still, despite the inclusion of it on the machine, no one was using it. But Tomlinson changed all of that when he used it to send his famous email. Since then, the 'at' symbol is to the internet as a bridge is to crossing.