Internet Hall of Fame honors Raymond Tomlinson, whose @ symbol defines Web life

April 24, 2012

The Internet Society in Geneva announced its inaugural inductees into the Internet Hall of Fame on Monday. Al Gore got in, and so did the founder of Craigslist; for the most part, the inductees were an oldish, whitish, mostly male pride, important for doing things online that few people are technologically equipped to understand.

There was also Raymond Tomlinson, godfather of e-mail, benefactor of “@.”

He rescued the symbol from obscurity and, in the process, shaped the way we talk about being online.

Aesthetically speaking, the @ is rotund and cozy, a Santa-belly of a symbol, sleek enough to have been inducted into MoMA’s architecture and design collection — True! In 2010, the museum called the acquisition “momentous” and “elating” — but cheerful enough to have acquired friendly nicknames around the world. In Israel it’s a “strudel,” in Croatia it’s a “monkey,” and in Mandarin Chinese it goes by “little mouse.”

Conceptually, what @ has done is signify the Internet as a destination. The @ symbol is “at,” therefore the Internet is a place one can go; it is a place at which one may reside. The symbol suggests that we think of the Web as a geographic location, rather than a state of mind. It is something to be surfed, cruised, crawled through.

One can imagine what implications might have arisen from other symbols. An ampersand — & — would imply a symbiotic relationship: “My computer and I are both sending this to you.” An asterisk would imply caveats (*Note: Be wary of this message). Forget about > or <, both of which are bound to do nothing but create resentment and inferiority complexes between you and your e-mail host: Jim is greater than Yahoo; Jen is less than Gmail.

Forty years ago, Tomlinson was an engineer at the R&D company Bolt Beranek and Newman when he developed an application that allowed messages to be sent back and forth between computers. He chose @ for practical purposes, needing something to separate the user name from the host name, and selecting a symbol with a modicum of familiarity to the general public. At the time, it was used mostly for accounting purposes — 10 bananas @ 25 cents — but some linguists think the marking dates to the 6th century, invented as an abbreviation for the Latin word meaning “toward” or “at.”

Tomlinson could not be reached for comment regarding his induction. He was @ the conference in Switzerland and not expected to return until Thursday.

For a full list of inductees into the Internet Hall of Fame, visit www.internethalloffame.org. Who would you like to see inducted? Add your suggestions in the comments.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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