Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

The History of @

A bunch of arrobas or even some petite snails!

An At By Any Other Name Still Gets Email Delivered

Checking the library and the Internet will provide you with several histories of the @ symbol. Each of the sources state their version with complete confidence and authority.  (That’s how false history and urban legends get started. )

I am putting my trust in this well documented account: In 2000, Giorgio Stabile, a professor at La Sapienza University in Rome, found correspondence written in 1536 by a Florence merchant, Francesco Lapi, describing three treasure-filled ships that had recently arrived from Latin America.  Lapi wrote with mercantile script which had been developed prior to that time and which often involved wrapping a letter with a flourish to indicate a longer word.  He used a wrapped a to denote an amphora, which was a measurement based on the size of terracotta containers and which was also used as an equivalency measurement.  The wrapped a might have been used before then, but no earlier examples have been found.

Arroba symbol

Over time the wrapped a was used in commercial transactions to mean at the rate of, at each or for each. (12 @ $2.00). The first Underwood typewriter in 1885 contained the commercial symbol @, which most referred to simply as at, at each or commercial at. The symbol is also sometimes used in casual handwriting as a way to shorten the two-letter word at to one letter.

In 1971, Ray Tomlinson, a computer engineer was working with a team to develop a network between computers. Although developing a mail system was not the specific purpose of the project, it was part of the work. He needed to find a way to separate an electronic mail recipient from the host computer name. (The two large computers were actually side by side in his research area).  The word at made sense and the at symbol on the keyboard seemed obvious. It’s been used that way billions of times since then.

KA-10 computers used for the first network email

So, that is how the @ symbol evolved. Quite an evolution!  For the story of what the symbol is now called in other languages, check out an article about the various names for Señor Lapi’s quick version of amphora, which started it all.

October 8th, 2009 Posted by | Personal and Professional Development, Training, Technology, Blogs, A/V etc. | 7 comments


  1. Interesting information. I heard a completely different story in a desktop publishing class but I researched it and found out the facts you have here. You did a good job of tying it together. Also,thanks again for the security material.

    Comment by Terry M. | October 9, 2009

  2. Shakespeare was really the one who first figured this out. If you look at the @ key you’ll see why. It is @ and 2. That’s where he got the famous line, “At two, Brute!”

    Comment by wiseacre | October 9, 2009

  3. There was more to the K-10 project than that, but you’re close enough for your purposes. There is an article about Tomlinson at http://www.forbes.com/asap/1998/1005/126.html.

    Comment by P.J. | October 9, 2009

  4. Tina says: Thanks for the comments, I look forward to them!

    T.M., I’m glad you’re able to use the material. And, glad you research, like I do!

    Wiseacre. Never mind.

    P.J., Thank you for commenting. I did a shorthand version of that part of the story, no doubt about it–and I don’t fully understand anything technical. 🙂

    I want to mention though that the Forbes article quotes Tomlinson as saying a colleague at the time told him to keep his mail process a secret because they weren’t supposed to working on that. Tomlinson said in other interviews that the remark was tongue-in-cheek because any use of the network was supposed to be considered.

    I’ve heard that line quoted many times to illustrate how we can stifle creativity at work. But, according to other Tomlinson remarks, it wasn’t really meant that way.

    Thanks very much for the link and the comment! Do it again!

    Comment by TLR | October 9, 2009

  5. Hi Tina! Denise said to say hi too and she’s sorry she didn’t get in the first comment on this. She’s sick with whatever is going around. She also wanted me to give you the one word I would use to describe me, but I think that’s something girls do more than guys, so I’ll pass. If I was going to give you a word it would be Stubborn, which is why I won’t give you a word. Enjoy the snow!

    Comment by Mike | October 10, 2009

  6. Tina says: Thanks Mike and tell Denise to please take very good care of herself. The snow is a good reason for her to stay home and stay warm. Stubborn might be a good word for you, but I was thinking “Sweet”. Maybe I was wrong. 🙂

    Comment by TLR | October 10, 2009

  7. Interesting. “Amphora” is also the name of a diner in Herndon, VA, which has the largest menu of any diner I’ve ever seen, is open 24 hours, and always has at least 20 varieties of homemade cake at any given time. I wonder why they named it Amphora, if it has anything to do with the @ sign?

    Comment by Jennifer | October 23, 2009

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