@

2013_11_27 immagine 05There are so many amazing works at the MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, to talk about that I do not know where to start. Still, I came out of the building completely stunned with an image in mind, a letter, or rather a character, a symbol. Because this character symbolizes our age better than any other.

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1971 ITC American Typewriter Medium. Ray Tomlinson (American b. 1941)
MoMA New York, 17/11/2013

Some scholars believe the @ symbol dates back to the sixth century, when scribes simplified the Latin word ad (at) by exaggerating the upstroke of the letter d and curving it over the a. Others believe that the symbol had its genesis in sixteenth-century Venetian trade as an abbreviation for amphora, a standard-size terra-cotta vessel employed by merchants that became a unit of measure. The word à in Norman French might be another source for @, which was adopted in northern Europe to mean ‘each at’, indicating price, its accent eventually becoming @’s curl. Since the nineteenth century, @ has appeared on standard typewriter and computer keyboards as the ‘commercial a’, used, until fairly recently, almost exclusively by accountants to mean ‘at the rate of’.

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The @ symbol used in a 1536 letter from an Italian merchant

In 1967 Tomlinson joined the tehnology company Bolt Beranek and Newman, where in 1971 he created the world’s first e-mail system, for the United States government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Networks (ARPANet). He adopted @ as a stand-in for the long and convoluted programming language indicating a message’s destination. This was a design decision of extraordinary elegance and economy – repurposing an existing, available and underutilized symbol to adapt the standard keyboard to a revolutionary new technology.

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. It is now part of everyday life all over the world, demonstrated by the affectionate names it has in different cultures. Germans, Poles, and South Africans call @ ‘monkey’s tail’, Chinese see a little mouse, and Italians and French a snail. The Finnish know it as the miukumauku, the ‘sign of the meow’, because it resembles a curled-up sleeping cat [from the MoMA exhibition].

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Here it is the article Paola Antonelli (Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design) posted on March 22nd, 2010 to tell the story of @, soon after the acquisition. The news sparked a lot of curiosity, just to see the number of comments posted by readers …

‘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.‘ (Paola Antonelli)

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