The origins of @ are murky. Scholars credit either medieval monks or French scribes with creating the symbol as an abbreviation. It saved space and labor on handwritten documents.
Skipping ahead to 1536, a Florentine merchant wrote “@” to represent “amphorae,” or large clay jars full of wine. Later merchants used the symbol to mean “at the rate of,” such as “3 pounds of asparagus @ $2.99.”
Because early typewriters and punch-card tabulators did not include the symbol, it nearly disappeared. Happily, with the development of standardized keyboards for typewriters and later a standardized character set for computers, the @ symbol was saved.
In 1971, a computer scientist named Ray Tomlinson worked for BBN Technologies. The U.S. government had contracted with BBN to create a network that would share information between computers. Tomlinson helped to develop ARPANET, a precursor of today’s Internet. He had to devise a way to address a message to someone at a different computer, using both the person’s name and the location of the computer. Tomlinson needed a symbol to separate those two elements, and to avoid confusion, the symbol had to be one not commonly used in computer programming. He looked at his keyboard and chose “@.” Since the symbol actually stood for “at,” people read email addresses as “Sue at XYZ.org,” which made intuitive sense.
The @ symbol has a proud history that spans centuries. And it’s fun to draw too.