@ Symbol Officially Becomes An Icon In MoMA's Architecture & Design Collection

@, now at MoMA@, now at MoMA Yes... @.  The Museum of Modern Art, (MoMA) acquired the @ symbol, and it was free!  It is the latest acquisition to the New York City's iconic Museum of icons, and you have to admit that @ is an icon!  The history of @ might surprise you, but not its use, which is typed by more than a billion people every day!

In acquiring the symbol @, which was free because it is in the public domain, MoMA made a major step in acknowledging that design can be great, indeed powerful, and be accessible, usable, and displayed by anyone.  In the case of @, MoMA's Senior Curator, Paola Antonelli of MoMA's Architecture and Design department, argues that since @ became part of typography, it has changed how we communicate, changed technology, expanded social relationships and helped us express "new forms of behavior and interaction in a new world."

As I mentioned, the history of the @ sign is surprising.  Scholars have discovered its use as far back as the sixth century, used to short-cut the words “at”, “to,” or “toward" into one unique pen stroke. In the16th Century, Italian merchants used the symbol @ to mean amphora, a standard size terracotta vessel, which had become a unit of measure.  Even today, the symbol @ in Spain is called arroba, also a standard of measure.


The @ symbol used in 1536 in a letter from an Italian merchant: via MoMAThe @ symbol used in 1536 in a letter from an Italian merchant: via MoMA


 Arroba, the Spanish word for @, used in the 1400s here, denoting a wheat shipment from Castile: via MoMAArroba, the Spanish word for @, used in the 1400s here, denoting a wheat shipment from Castile: via MoMA


The symbol @ appeared on the American Underwood Typewriter in 1885; it was defined for the first time in 1894 in the American Dictionary of Printing & Bookmaking as the symbol of the "commercial 'a.'"  In 1963, the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) defined @ as the abbreviation of 'at' or 'at the rate of,' mainly used in accounting and commercial invoices.

But in 1967, a computer engineer working for Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) was asked to develop a program to enable computer users on the ARPAnet, the program that evolved into the Internet, to send messages to each other. Ray Tomlinson, was that young programmer, and he's the one who gave birth to the @ use in the Internet's email system.  

"Tomlinson then sent an email about the @ sign and how it should be used in the future," Ms. Antonelli writes. " He therefore consciously, and from the very start, established new rules and a new meaning for this symbol."

"Tomlinson performed a powerful act of design that not only forever changed the @ sign’s significance and function, but which also has become an important part of our identity in relationship and communication with others. His (unintended) role as a designer must be acknowledged and celebrated by the one collection—MoMA’s—that has always celebrated elegance, economy, intellectual transparency, and a sense of the possible future directions that are embedded in the arts of our time, the essence of modern."

The @ symbol will be displayed in different type faces and sizes at MoMA.  You can be sure the Museum will do the @ proud.

Inside/Out @ MoMA via FastCompany, NPR.org