Discover the @-SIGN : From Wine Fairs to Email Addresses

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40 Years back, an information scientist wrote the first email from one computer to the other. He needed a symbol to differentiate between the recipient and the sender, and thus discovered new use on to the centuries old @-sign

It is November or December of 1971... Raymond Tomlinson doesn't remember exactly when. He sits in front of two Digital- PDP-10 computers, each the size of a person, and literally writes history with a special sign. Both the machines (one of which stores 288 Kbyte) are connected to the Arpanet, out of which the Internet would emerge one day. It is a historical moment: for the first time, a computer would receive a message sent from another computer. Raymond Tomlinson cannot imagine what meaning this development would have in the future. The first network emails also had a typical test text, something like QWERTYUIOP or TESTING 1 2 3 4. Tomlinson doesn't remember even that exactly.

Description: Raymond Tomlinson

Raymond Tomlinson

Actually, the basis for the Email existed from this point itself. The messages, however, could only be sent through one and the same computer and only the users could be changed. To send a message from one computer to the other, Tomlinson combined two already existing scripts: SNDMSG was one of the existing email programs. It allowed users to hang messages on the file of the particular users without reading the file or overwriting it. The mailbox in principle was a continuously extended text document. The CPYNET again was a program for the data transfer on the net. From a combination of both programs, Tomlinson's email program emerged. To differentiate between various hosts, he still needed a sign which necessarily would not appear in the name of the recipient or the computer. Tomlinson chose a symbol from the right side of his terminal keyboard, in the second row from above, [Shift] plus [P] - the @-Sign, which would later be a symbol of the digital age.

From Wine Fairs to Email Addresses

Description: The first email program was created by Ray Tomlinson of BBN

The first email program was created by Ray Tomlinson of BBN

The sign, on the contrary, is not new one. As early as on 4th May 1536, a businessman from Florence called Francesco Lapi penned a letter to be sent from Seville to Rome, in which he described the address of three ships from Latin America; "There is Amphora wine which is filled up to one third of a barrel worth 70 or 80 ducats" he wrote, shortening Amphora with an "a" which was entangled with its tail: an @ wine. Since the Spanish for "Amphora" is "Arroba", @ is described as "Arroba" in Spain even today.

According to a theory, the @ sign is even much older, though experts and historians are not united over how old it could be. Monks and priests could have used the symbol as early as the 6th or 7th century, as a short form. The "ad" from Latin became @. That saved time, place and ink. There are many such theories. But one thing is for sure; since the time when businessmen like Francesco Lapi wrote the symbol, it spread to the business routes in Europe and was used mainly by the English business folk. For them, it denoted a piece price of a good. For example, two crates of whiskey @10 dollars (what it equals for each).

That's the reason why the symbol @ was to be found on the American and English typewriters from the end of the 19th Century. As the ASCII- Standard coding was published in 1963, the @ also belonged to the 95 typeable signs that were listed. And is placed on the "P" of Ray Tomlinson's PDP-10-Computer. However, at that time it was used rarely, at least until when it suited perfectly for his specific purposes.

In 1973, the members of the Internet Engineering Taskforce agreed upon a suggestion made in the mail meeting summary of RFC 469 to have a standard syntax for the email transfer, and they picked up on Tomlinson's idea: user@host. Code protocols came into existence from 1980 on which Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) which we use today is based. The first spam problem was at least foreseen as early as 1975, but the first spam mail apparently existed from 1978. Six years later, on the 3rd of August 1984, a scientist called Michael Rotert from Kalsruhe (Germany) was the first German to receive an Email from his American colleague on the address rotert%[email protected]. The subject: "Welcome to CSNET!" [sic!]. By 1996, email would've reached the mass market with Hotmail.

Description: HoTMaiL (the capitalized letters are an homage to HTML)

HoTMaiL (the capitalized letters are an homage to HTML)

In present times, billions of Emails are sent daily, and every year about a 100 trillion. The @ sign, meanwhile, stands for something much more. For example, the short-message social networking service Twitter uses this symbol in the username and in Internet forums, individual members are referred to with this sign. Most of all, in areas where English is spoken, the sign is used even outside the internet, such as programming languages, biology, physics or chemistry. Meanwhile, the @ even has a permanent place in the New Yorker Museum of Modern Art.

And Ray Tomlinson? He remained unnoticed for the most part, till Arpanet celebrated its 25th Anniversary. At that time, he commented on his decision of choosing @ : "The sign just makes sense. I had used it to show that the user sits 'at' another host computer and not on a local one."

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