What’s the deal with @ (the at sign)? For too long the popular story that Ray Tomlinson saved @ from extinction by using it in email has spread as internet gossip. This story is false, and has been retold again and again without people asking some obvious questions like “Why was there an @ on Ray Tomlison’s keyboard?” and “What led to @ being a part of the computer keyboard?”
The truth is that @ has a rich history that can be traced back to the 1300’s, and since then has traveled through the Mediterranean world, across continental Europe, and into the printing houses of everyday Englishmen. @ originally was used to represent the word “arroba” (this is still the Spanish and Portuguese name for the character), a term for a unit of weight that was borrowed from the Arabs. Later @ came to be used in place of the phrase “at the rate of” in France and later England and Sweeden. This meaning held through the turn of the 20th century, and @ is still properly referred to as the “commercial at” or “commercial a”. By the time typewriters became available to the general public @ was being included along with other commercial keys like the cent sign.
Around this same time electric data processing machines, like the kind made by Herman Hollerith, needed to encode letters and numbers into binary on punch cards. The code used here was BCDIC, which by the 1930’s only held 40 symbols, @ not included. It was only when the ENIAC, BINAC, and UNIVAC came along and began to use teletypes as console output and later input that BCDIC was expanded. In 1953 @, along with several other symbols from the teletype keyboards, @ was officially included in BCDIC and was used in IBM’s FORTRAN to represent the single quote.
When ASCII was developed in 1963 @ was again included at position 1000000, cementing it as part of general computer encoding. Wherever ASCII goes, @ goes along as well, and there was hardly a computer from that day on that was not compatible with this encoding.
So Ray Tomlinson’s keyboard in 1971 had @ on it because @ was already a part of ASCII. His choosing @ didn’t save it from being thrown out of the keyboard, although it did manage to give a use to the @ key for non-programmers of the day.
@ is the key with the most unique history on the entire keyboard, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.