Paola Antonelli, a Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art posted a fascinating little history of the “@” symbol to the museum’s Insider/Out blog this morning on the occasion of an announcement that MoMA has acquired the ubiquitous symbol for its design collection. This little micro-history is fascinating, from @’s first appearance in sixth century Latin, and later as a shorthand for amphora in Venetian trading. The symbol has been on American typewriters since the 1880s, but was only used in accounting documents and then only very rarely, until 1971 when Ray Tomlinson invented the first email system and appropriated the under-used symbol to designate locations in information networks. But wait, how exactly do you acquire something like @?
Being in the public realm, @ is free. It might be the only truly free—albeit not the only priceless—object in our collection… We have acquired the design act in itself and as we will feature it in different typefaces, we will note each time the specific typeface as if we were indicating the materials that a physical object is made of.