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Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Brief History Of @

A giant "at" sign is shown in front of the ExciteAtHome headquarters in Redwood City, Calif. in 2001. (AP)

A giant “at” sign is shown in front of the ExciteAtHome headquarters in Redwood City, Calif. in 2001. (AP)

The digital age has made a celebrity of the “at” sign, but the symbol’s roots go far back.

According to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), in the 5th or 6th century monks used it as shorthand for the Latin word “ad” meaning “toward.”

In the 16th century, Venetian traders used it to represent a standard of measure.

Ray Tomlinson. @. 1971. Here displayed in ITC American Typewriter Medium, the closest approximation to the character used by a Model 33 Teletype in the early 1970s. (Courtesy MoMA)

Ray Tomlinson. @. 1971. Here displayed in ITC American Typewriter Medium, the closest approximation to the character used by a Model 33 Teletype in the early 1970s. (Courtesy MoMA)

The “at” sign then found its way onto the American Underwood typewriter, and it was later used in accounting and now has become the signifier of the digital age.

Now the MoMA says it has acquired the symbol for its permanent Architecture and Design collection.

Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, explained what the acquisition means on MoMA.org:

The acquisition of @…relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that “cannot be had”—because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @—as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection. The same criteria of quality, relevance, and overall excellence shared by all objects in MoMA’s collection also apply to these entities.

 

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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