Thursday, May 28, 2009


At the LRB, Daniel Soar contemplates the arobase:
The new global battle for ownership of @ is in a way heartening: the old orthodoxy had it that it was merely a ligature used for accounting purposes. It was a combination of the letters ‘e’ and ‘a’ to designate ‘ea(ch)’, or of ‘a’ and ‘d’ for the Latin ad: ‘at’ or ‘to’ or something of equally diabolical simplicity. Either way, it had an aura of empire, whether derived from Britain or Rome. It was certainly in accounting for stuff that it made its way into the 20th century: it appeared as a key on the 1902 Lambert typewriter, made in New York, and it was as shorthand for pricing items – 60 widgets @ $2 = $120 – that it subsisted until 1971, when Ray Tomlinson of arpanet invented email. And now, of course, it’s ubiquitous. No one would know where anything was meant to go if it wasn’t for the amazing @.

Tomlinson, when interviewed on the subject, claimed that he simply needed a handy symbol to separate the user (‘nixon’) from the domain they resided at (‘’). He also said: ‘I sent a number of test messages to myself from one machine to another. The test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them.’ This insouciance – or evasiveness? – is clearly suspicious. What was he trying to say?

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