This document from the 14th century shows a use of the @ sign long before Twitter or email were ever even considered. (Document originally created by Constantine Manasses via Wikimedia Commons.)

The digital age has made a celebrity of the “at” sign, but the symbol’s roots go back far beyond the launch of the Internet.

According to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as long as the 5th or 6th century A.D., monks used the symbol as shorthand for the Latin word “ad” meaning “toward.” And In the 16th century, Venetian traders used it to represent a standard of measure. South Africans call it a monkey tail.

MoMA "acquired" the @ symbol for its collection recently — which in practical terms means they've just introduced it to their exhibits, even though there's nothing, really, tangible to acquire.

Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, said the symbol is design and even architecture — making it worthy of permanent memorialization.

"The @ sign is architecture, is design — it's a concept, it's a symbol, it's a means of communication," she said. "It's something we can take as an example of something that has existed forever, used as a beacon of what we would like design to be."

When email was established in 1971, Ray Tomlinson decided that the @ sign would be the perfect way to fuse an individual with the machine where they could be reached, Antonelli said. It fit perfectly with how the monks had used it all those years earlier. The rest, as they say, is history.

"Here we are, centuries after, we're using it in the same way," she said.

Antonelli says in "acquiring" the @ sign, the museum is capturing just one use of a symbol that stretches across years.

"Museum curators have as a mission, that of showing great examples of art and, in my case, great examples of design to the public," she explained. "Some of those examples cannot be captured or possessed. And it's even more contemporary. We don't need to possess them. We can still show them."

The symbol is on the wall at the museum there with a description of what the "acquisition" means for the museum.

Related Stories