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Jewish World Review April 11, 2000 / 6 Nissan, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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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 universe.

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 out.

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, willing-to-work-hard character?


And it even means "at." It even makes sense in context.

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 compute.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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