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Everyday Marvels

Explore some of the humble but revolutionary objects that have changed the way we interact with and engage in the world.


Ray Tomlinson
(American, 1941–2016)

1971. Itc american typewriter medium.

There is a debate among scholars about the origin of the @ symbol. Some believe it dates back as far as the sixth century, when scribes simplified the Latin word ad (at). Others believe the symbol had its genesis as an abbreviation for the amphora, a terra-cotta vessel common in 16th-century Venetian trade. The @ began appearing on standard typewriter keyboards in the 19th century. For most of its history, it was used almost exclusively in financial transactions to indicate “at the rate of.”

The present day use of the @ symbol was pioneered by American electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson in 1971. Tomlinson was working as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense to develop ARPAnet, a computer network that was a precursor to the Internet. Tomlinson was responsible for the development of the sub-program of ARPAnet, a precursor to contemporary email programs that could send messages between computers on this network. He adopted @ as a stand-in for the long and convoluted programming language indicating a message’s destination. The sign’s new function is in keeping with its origins: In computer language, as in financial transactions, @ designates a relationship between two entities, establishing a link based on objective and measurable rules.1 The @ sign is now part of everyday life all over the world.

Paola Antonelli, @ at MoMA, blog post, Inside/Out, March 22, 2010.

A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.

Collecting Intangible Design
MoMA has acquired other nonphysical objects for its collection including 23 digital typefaces.