Wednesday, March 31, 2010

MoMA acquires the @ Symbol


The MoMA in New York has added (“acquired” in museum-speak) the @ symbol into a collection in its Department of Architecture and Design, as reported in an Inside/Out article. The article says that @ was included as part of the original ASCII set defined in 1963 as a shorthand for the common accounting phrase “at the rate of”. Its choice for formatting email addresses was made a few years later

In 1967, American electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson joined the technology company of Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), where he created the world’s first e-mail system a few years later, in 1971, using a Model KSR 33 Teletype device. BBN had a contract from the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense to help in the development of ARPAnet, an early network from which the Internet later emerged. Working with Douglas Engelbart on the whole program, Tomlinson was in particular responsible for the development of the sub-program that can send messages between computers on this network. It was the first system able to send mail between users on different hosts connected to the ARPAnet, while previously mail could be sent only to hosts that used the same computer.

In January 1971, @ was an underused jargon symbol lingering on the keyboard and marred by a very limited register. By October, Tomlinson had rediscovered and appropriated it, imbuing it with new meaning and elevating it to defining symbol of the computer age. He chose the @ for his first e-mail because of its strong locative sense—an individual, identified by a username, is @ this institution/computer/server, and also because…it was already there, on the keyboard, and nobody ever used it.

The MoMA collection is attributing @ as a contemporary work of art by Mr. Tomlinson, and the image added to the gallery is “displayed in ITC American Typewriter Medium, the closest approximation to the character used by a Model 33 Teletype in the early 1970s”.

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