I was scrolling through Facebook this morning. I saw the usual uninteresting stuff; you know, the types of things with ridiculous titles like “This dog was on the couch and fell asleep: you won’t believe what happens next,” when I ran across a brief mention of the guy who in 1971, sent the first email. His name was Ray Tomlinson, and he died two days ago. He was a member of the Internet Hall of Fame (and yes, there’s apparently an Internet Hall of Fame) because it “brought about a complete revolution, fundamentally changing the way people communicate.” Impressive. And I’d have to agree. Who among us hasn’t got an email? Nobody reading this blog, I’d suspect.

But what fascinated me more was the next sentence of his obituary. It claimed that he “singlehandedly repopularized the at-sign. You know, this:

at sign

It’s a good sign. I love punctuation and symbols anyhow, so I immediately had to look up the history of the thing. Wikipedia has a good article on it, so I won’t bore you with the historical details except that it’s been around for at least 600 years. In that time, well, we didn’t use it much. It has a pretty specific meaning and isn’t exactly popular in literature. That is, until Mr. Tomlinson.

I looked it up. I was unable to resist.  Google’s ngram viewer records each instance of a word in in their very, very large database of literature and documents. Check it out. Have fun! So did he really repopularize the at sign? Let’s see…

Here’s the graph of Google’s recorded usage of the symbol @ since 1971:

at sign 1971-2005
1971-2005. Look at that @ go!

You can click the image to embiggen, by the way. In the space of about 35 years, the the at sign has gone from showing once every 10,000 characters to once every 1,000 characters. That’s pretty impressive, if you give it a bit of thought. In 1971, the word computer was known to science fiction nerds and university eggheads.

In 1971, I was three years old. The moon landing was just 2 years in the past, made possible by brute-force technology and machines-that-go-ping. The game Mastermind was just a board with holes and, to me, plastic bits that looked like M&Ms. Intel created its first microprocessor that year. Richard Nixon was still a pretty good guy, and was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Ed Sullivan and The Beverly Hillibillies were cancelled.

Okay, compare to 1981: the year the IBM PC computer was released, and Voyager was taking amazing pictures of Saturn. Some crazy named John Hinkley Jr. tried to kill Ronald Reagan. The Center for Disease Control AIDS, a kind of pneumonia affecting gay men.

at sign 1800-2005
Look at the at sign from 1800-2005. In 1980, it explodes into popularity…

After that, well… you know what happened. There was this thing called the Internet. Windows 95 overwhelmed us all. We all joined AOL.com, and then left AOL.com. We said the words “Information Superhighway” way too often, and danced the Macarena. We all got email addresses with little @s in them.


Quick at-sign facts:

  • In Renaissance Portugal and Spain it was a unit of measurement: You could buy an @ of wine
  • In contemporary Portugal, the @ is an emoticon that means I’m kissing you… with tongue!
  • Traditionally, the Dutch call the symbol “apenstaartje, which means “little monkey tail.” Today, they call the symbol “at,” presumably because it’s easier to pronounce. Germans, Romanians, Poles and Croats follow suit. The Scandinavians generally refer to the symbol as “elephant’s nose”. Russians and their neighbors call it “dog” or “dog tail.” The Hungarians call it a worm or a maggot. The Hebrew language calls it a strudel, presumably because it looks like one.
  • A few years ago, a Chinese couple tried to name their son @—pronouncing it “ai ta” or “love him”


Ok. Thanks for indulging my little brain exercise for today. And thank you, at-sign for being there. And thanks, Ray Tomlinson for that email thing you invented! I sent one to somebody just the other day, and never even gave it a second’s thought. Pretty remarkable, when you think about it.  45 years ago, when he was busy inventing email, I was eating crayons and picking boogers. Now I only do one of those things, and afterwards I can send an email about it!



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