@rest: Ray Tomlinson, father of the email, dies @75

Posted on by Mike Evans

The father of the internet, the @man, has died from a suspected heart attack on his 75th birthday. Ray Tomlinson invented email as we know it and it now hard to imagine life without the instant communication that he introduced. Along the way he decided to resurrect the humble @ sign, a long-neglected little key on the top row of the QWERTY typewriter layout. 

In Greece you can put a papaki like this in your email address (Photo Wiki Commons)

Until the 1960s or thereabouts @ was commonly used on invoices and bills (20 widgets @ £1 = £20). But, gradually it lost its meaning and purpose. It didn't even have a proper name unlike its close brother the ampersand. I suppose it didn't need one since it was simply "at", a clerk's shorthand in twirling the t around the a.

Yet in a staggering rags to riches story for the little symbol, Ray rescued it as an essential component of his email protocol. Most people now take it for granted and, perhaps, assume it was invented especially for email—instead of being an abbreviation dating back centuries.

Many do not recognise its literal meaning of "at" and most languages give it another name rather than a simple translation of the word (which actually makes perfect sense in an English-language email address). In other languages, the significance of the t curling round the a is completely lost.

I am writing this from Athens, for instance, and in these parts @ is called papaki or duckling, although officially I am told it is "sto" a direct translation of the English word "at". Nevertheless, a typical email address such as is pronounced stavros papaki hotmail teleia comSimilarly strange (to English ears) renderings occur throughout the world.

Animal names for @ proliferate in many parts of the Internet world, with the elephant finding favour in several lands because of its @-like trunk, while the Hungarians call it kukatsz, the little worm, and in Italy it is a chiocciolina or small snail.

In the Netherlands little @ is known as apestaart, or monkey's tail, and the nearby Germans often call it the Affenschwanz, the monkey's tail. But my favourite is the Czech zavinac which means rolled pickled herring.

Ray Tomlinson has provided us with a true icon of the times and a timeless existence for the little @.

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