ROME (07/31/2000) - That ubiquitous symbol of Internet era modernity, the @ used in e-mail addresses, is actually at least 500 years old and was invented by Italian merchants as a measure of weight or volume, according to a Rome university professor.
The first known use of the distinctive letter "a" wrapped in its own tail occurs in a letter written by a Florentine merchant on May 4, 1536, said Giorgio Stabile, a professor of the history of science at Rome's La Sapienza University. The symbol represents an amphora, a measure of capacity based on the terracotta jars used to transport grains and liquids in the ancient Mediterranean world, he said.
"One can't say this is the first example of its use, as ancient financial institutions may have earlier examples lying forgotten in their archives," Stabile said over iced tea in Rome's scenic Piazza Navona.
The professor discovered the document while doing research for a visual history of the 20th century, which is due to be published by the Treccani Encyclopedia.
In the document a trader called Francesco Lapi describes the arrival in Spain of ships bearing treasure from Latin America.
"There an amphora of wine, which is one thirtieth of a barrel, is worth 70 or 80 ducats," Lapi wrote in his letter, sent from Seville to a colleague in Rome.
"No symbol is born by chance," Stabile said. "This one has represented the entire history of navigation on the seas and has now come to typify travel in cyberspace."
The symbol, known to modern Italian cybernauts as "la chiocciola" (the snail), followed trade routes through Spain and Portugal and eventually made its way to northern Europe, as Britain and its neighbors began to dominate international maritime commerce, Stabile said. The Spanish word for the at sign, "arroba," also indicates a weight or measure, equivalent at the end of the 16th century to 25 pounds or "six gallons English," according to dictionary definitions from that period.
"Until now, no one knew that the at sign derived from this symbol, which was created by Italian traders in a mercantile script they developed in the 15th and 16th centuries," Stabile said. "The loop around the 'a' is typical of that merchant script."
In northern Europe, it took on its contemporary accountancy meaning -- "at the price of" -- and found its way onto English typewriter keyboards early in the last century, Stabile said. In the 1970s it was chosen as a rarely used symbol to separate user names from domain addresses on Arpanet, a forerunner of today's Internet, by the American engineer Ray Tomlinson.
Internet users around the globe have adopted metaphors ranging from an elephant's trunk to a cat's foot and from a monkey's tail to a cinnamon roll to describe the ever-present Internet squiggle. Sweden is reportedly the nation with the greatest number of terms for the at sign.
Italy's claim to authorship of the ancient sign could have significant financial implications, Stabile said. "The oldest example could be of great value. It could be used for publicity purposes and to enhance the prestige of the institution that owned it," he said.
The professor said he stumbled on the 1536 example by chance. "It was like looking for a needle in a haystack," he said. "Paleographers (those who study ancient writings) don't tend to pay much attention to commercial literature."
His discovery could now spark a competition between nations and between rival financial institutions to see who possesses the oldest example of the at sign, also known in English as "commercial at."
"Venice is the maritime city that continued to use the amphora weight unit the longest, but Florence is the foremost city for banking," Stabile said. "The story of the amphora as a weight comes to us from ancient Greece, but its history as a sign definitely begins with Italian merchants."
For Italians, who have been slower than their northern European neighbors to take to the Internet, their claim to be the inventors of the e-mail "snail" could be a justifiable source of national pride.