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MoMA Acquires “@” Symbol. “WTF” Next?

New York’s Museum of Modern Art is adding the ubiquitous typographic icon to its permanent collection. Here’s the story behind the acquisition.

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Today, MoMA’s announced what might be its boldest acquisition ever. And it didn’t even cost anything: The “@” symbol is now a part of the museum’s permanent design collection.

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Which sounds more than a little mystifying. But MoMA’s chief design curator, Paola Antonelli, offers a fairly detailed and fascinating rationale.

“@” is more ancient than you might think–Some scholars think it was invented over 1,300 years ago, as way to reduce the Latin word “ad“–which means “at, “to,” or “toward”–into a single penstroke.

But by the 20th century, it was a weird oddity of typography–found on most keyboards, but essentially useless for everyday applications.

And that’s what drew the attention of Ray Tomlinson, a computer engineer who helped create the world’s very first email system. Faced with the problem that emails could only be sent to users on the same server, he adopted the “@” to allow cross-server email routing, via an email address. As Antonelli writes:

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 email 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.

And here’s her rationale for adding it to the MoMA collection:

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

Weirdly, if the Internet hadn’t been invented in America, we might never have begun using “@” the way we do: In Russia, it symbolizes “dog,” and in Norway, it’s known as the “sign of the meow.” And in Spain, it’s used to express gender equality, since it contains both an “o” and “a”–for example: “Hola l@s viej@s amig@s y l@s nuev@s amig@s!”

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Presumably, the “@” will now be periodically displayed with a placard in the design galleries, detailing this history.

Since it’s in the public domain, it was of course free–making it the only free acquisition that MoMA’s ever done.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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