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Why Your Email Address Has An @ In It

Email is something many of us have only been using for the past 20 years, but its roots go back much, much further than that. The earliest traces of email even date back to the 1960s, and according to Wired, computer engineer Ray Tomlinson was responsible for many of email’s earliest innovations, including the use of @ in email addresses.

The main reason we use @ in email addresses? It’s a symbol for a preposition, and it will never be confused for any part of our actual names.

“I looked at the keyboard, and I thought: ‘What can I choose here that won’t be confused with a username?’” Tomlinson remembers. “If every person had an ‘@’ sign in their name, it wouldn’t work too well. But they didn’t. They did use commas and slashes and brackets. Of the remaining three or four characters, the ‘@’ sign made the most sense. It denoted where the user was … at. Excuse my English.”

Tomlinson calls the ‘@’ symbol “the only preposition on the keyboard.”

But there are a few other gems about email’s rise to power that are also worth mentioning:

  • Tomlinson worked for Bolt Beranek and Newman, a Boston-based engineering outfit responsible for much of the hardware and software that ARPAnet ran on in its earliest days. It was here that he would develop his innovatons.
  • The earliest email seedling existed in 1961, where users were able to access a remote server and send messages to each other. Messages never left that one machine, so users only saw them upon logging in to the server. Using this is what first prompted Tomlinson to improve the protocol.
  • Implementing the new @ address system required Tomlinson to deliver his program to all the other sites on ARPAnet. Luckily there were only 12 other sites in 1972.

For the rest of the tale on how Tomlinson helped create the email we know and love today, be sure to check out the full story over at Wired.

Image: Shutterstock/PaulPaladin


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