Jewish World Review April 11, 2000 / 6 Nissan, 5760
A star is born, but do
you know where it's @?
EVERYONE LOVES A STORY of a comeback kid --- of the
scrappy little guy who's ignored by the world, who is
hidden in the shadows of the flashier men and
women who are always being praised and
adulated--the quiet, unassuming fellow who comes
along in the final act, and wins the championship.
Few stories are more inspiring. They give hope to
everyone who was ever told he was not good
enough, who was ever made to feel that he'd never
reach the top. These stories are proof that if you're
persistent enough, if you have inner confidence, the
world will come to you eventually --- you will be
acclaimed and applauded.
That's what is so nice about today's story. It may be
the ultimate true-life, better-than-fiction,
stand-up-and-cheer tale of our era. The little guy no
one ever paid attention to--now at the peak of the
This good little guy's name?
He doesn't have a name, really.
He's the @ sign.
You know --- the @ sign.
You see him every day--in every e-mail you receive.
You reach out to touch him each time you want to
communicate with someone using your computer
keyboard. You may have the most eloquent, or
business-smart, or romantic words in the history of
language--but you can't get them to the person for
whom they're intended unless you stretch your
finger up toward the top of the keyboard, and caress
the @ key.
The @ key is everywhere now--the new world of
the 21st Century could not run without it.
And not so long ago, it was all but forgotten.
It has been around for years--it has always been on
your keyboard. You just looked past it every
day--you sought out the more glamorous keys.
The @ key was used in business--it was an
adding-machine type of key. It meant "at" or "each."
For example, if a fruit and vegetable wholesaler was
billing a grocer, the bill might read: "200 potatoes at
$.30=$60.00." It was the unflashiest, most unglittery
key there could ever be. Utilitarian? @ was the
dullest key on the board.
And unless you worked in someone's billing
department, you seldom saw it on paper. Pocket
calculators replaced mechanical adding
machines--the @ key seemed old-fashioned, like
something out of your grandfather's ledgers.
@ may even have thought that it was on the way
But then, out of nowhere, something appeared over
the next hill.
No, not a conquering hero.
E-mail arrived--and with it, the need to have some
typographical device with which to address
messages. You could know the computer name of
the person to whom you wanted to write, you could
know the e-mail system where that person could be
reached--but how would you combine the two?
Of course--it even sounded right. The person with
whom you wanted to correspond was at--was @--a
certain electronic mailbox. Of course @ was the
right character to put in the address--in retrospect,
@ seems born for this job.
Who figured this out? Some sources say that it was
a man named Ray Tomlinson. Tomlinson, according
to these sources, was a computer engineer in the
days before the Internet as the world now knows it
was born. He was trying to come up with a way to
make computer-screen mail addresses work--and he
knew one thing for certain: If he used a character
that appeared in people's names, that would throw
the whole thing askew. How would a computer
know that the character really wasn't part of the
sender's or receiver's name and address?
There was such a character--a character that is not
a part of anyone's name.
That character? That modest, unassuming,
And it even means "at." It even makes sense in
The rest truly is history--history that continues to
unfold. We are still in the beginning years of
e-mail--no one is certain just how overwhelmingly it
will take over the world, but the takeover has begun,
and it is huge.
The best estimates are that, every year, 3.4 trillion
e-mails are sent in the U.S. That is 9.4 billion e-mails
every day--9.4 billion times every day, someone
touches the @ key.
And it has just started. @ is poised to be the star of
stars--a character actor no more, the @ key is the
leading man of all leading men. @ is at the top--and
as in all wonderful stories, this one is so satisfying
because no one resents @'s success, no one has
anything but good feelings for @. @ earned
everything the hard way.
But you can't send @ a fan letter. It wouldn't
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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