Why @ Is Held in Such High Design Esteem


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The French and Italians have nicknamed it the snail. The Norwegians have plumped for pigs tail, the Germans monkeys tail, and the Chinese little mouse. The Russians think of it as a dog, and the Finns as a slumbering cat.

It's the @ symbol on the computer keyboard, which is an essential component of every e-mail address. Millions of us type it each day, usually without thinking about it. Yet the Museum of Modern Art in New York has deemed it to be such an important example of design that the @ has been officially admitted to its architecture and design collection. That's as good as it gets in the design world, rather like bagging a Tony on Broadway or an Oscar in Hollywood.

You may be wondering why a keyboard symbol should be lauded as a design coup. Its a reasonable question, and the answer tells us a great deal about how design and our expectations of it are changing.

Lets start by looking at the @. No one knows for sure when it first appeared. One suggestion is that it dates to the sixth or seventh century when it was adopted as an abbreviation of ad, the Latin word for at or toward. (The scribes of the day are said to have saved time by merging two letters and curling the stroke of the d around the a.) Another theory is that it was introduced in 16th-century Venice as shorthand for the amphora, a measuring device used by local tradesmen.

Whatever its origins, the @ appeared on the keyboard of the first typewriter, the American Underwood, in 1885 and was used, mostly in accounting documents, as shorthand for at the rate of. It remained an obscure keyboard character until 1971 when an American programmer, Raymond Tomlinson, added it to the address of the first e-mail message to be sent from one computer to another.

At the time, he was working for Bolt, Beranek & Newman, a technology company that was developing a communications network for the U.S. Department of Defense. Mr. Tomlinson was responsible for the messaging service. He wrote the addresses in computer code, which needed to be translated into a form of words that the rest of us could understand.

Having decided that the first half of the address should identify the user and the second the computer, he looked for a symbol to indicate that he or she was literally at that machine. The @ not only had a similar meaning, but was so seldom used that it was open to reinterpretation. (If you're a Gossip Girl fan, think of it as Little J. being crowned queen of Constance; or, if you prefer Mad Men, as Peggy after her promotion from secretary to copywriter.)

We all know what happened next. The @ became a supernova of the digital age and part of our daily lives, although that still doesn't explain why it has been elevated to MoMA's design collection.

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