From the Romans to Twitter

The journey of the hashtag is long and storied – it saw many lives before it became the powerful organizer of tweets by topic. Like many of the other symbols, its first known use too was by the Romans.

The Roman libra pondo lb

Its origins started with the Roman use of the short form “lb” for libra pondo or “pound in weight.” Eventually, with its use in English, and as people started writing faster, a line was placed across the lb until it started to look like #.

The # symbol appeared on the 3 key on Remington typewriters in the 1870s

The # was included as a character in printers, though it continued to be called pound sign. And then in the 1870s it reached the typewriter (often on the 3 key).

The # symbol saw another life as an octothorpe when it got included on the telephone keypad. It was this inclusion on the phone keypad that made it a well-known symbol to the general public. The # on the phone started to signify numbers in automated customer service systems, and it would have stayed like that forever, had it not been for Chris Messina’s attempt to organize Twitter.

Looking for a way to organize twitter by topicality, Chris Messina chanced upon the # symbol, and used it for the first time in a tweet on August 23, 2007, “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

With #barcamp, the # symbol begins a new life

Chris Messina used the # symbol as an organizing tool for the Twitter community. Twitter did not have a way to support groups, and using the # symbol provided a way to categorize by topic, and indicate topicality. He only picked it because it already existed on mobile phone keypads, and was therefore readily available to use.

And with that, a symbol that started its journey with the Romans finally achieved greatness in social media as a hashtag. On a daily basis around 125 million hashtags are shared daily on Twitter.


For centuries, lighthouses have been the guiding light that have helped weary travelers find the way home. Standing steadfast at the edge of turbulent waters, these lighthouses have been a beacon of hope since ancient times. The US coastline is dotted with more than 1000 lighthouses – starting with the Boston Light in 1716, which still sits on a rocky island 10 miles out in the Boston Harbor.

These lighthouses were instrumental in building the nation – the colonies built lighthouses along the coast to make navigating their shores safer for maritime sailors. They also played an important role during the Revolutionary Wars, as a result of which in 1789, The First Federal Congress passed the Lighthouse Act which was the nation’s first public works program. The US Lighthouse Board, established in 1847, was the second agency of the US Federal Government. The list below shows lighthouses from Maine to Michigan.

These lighthouses became the guiding light which guided the settlers to new lands across the vast expanse of this nation’s coastlines and lake shores.

The Hook Lighthouse in Ireland as been guiding sailors for over 800 years.

The oldest working lighthouse in the world is the Hook Lighthouse which was built around 1210. It was built by the monks who had lived in a monastery there since the 5th century, and had a practice of lighting a warning beacon at Hook Head. This tradition of warning sailors and fishermen continued for centuries until a lighthouse was built around 1210.  

St. Augustine Lighthouse: the oldest lighthouse in Florida

The 1868 Lighthouse Board Report included this statement, “Nothing indicates the liberality, prosperity or intelligence of a nation more clearly than the facilities which it affords for the safe approach of the mariner to its shores.” With these lighthouses that dotted the coastline, the United States has always kept the light on at night, making sure its people find their way home safely.

Amphora – yes the @ sign has a name

The symbol @ is so commonly used today that most of us don’t even notice it. I’ve heard it being referred to as “at the rate of” and I didn’t think that that was its actual name. Which got me wondering on what its real name was, and how did it end up in our email addresses.

The origin of the symbol again goes back to the ingenious medieval scribes looking to make their job of scribing easier by finding shortcuts.  They may have used the symbol for the Latin word “ad” which means toward. It’s first known use though is where it was used to represent the words “each at” and the e and a being joined together to form the symbol. 

Ancient clay jars called Amphoras

Its first documented use, from where it also gets its name, was in 1536 when a Florentine wine merchant Francesco Lapi used the symbol @ for units of wine sold in clay jars or Amphoras. With this its use in commerce started and merchants started to use it to tell the price of each unit of the item being purchased – 10 loaves of bread @ $1, meaning total cost of $10. Its use in this manner in commerce continued until 1971, and perhaps it was this exclusive use in commerce that made it a good option for use in emails.

An Italian Merchant uses the @ symbol in 1536 (courtesy MOMA website)

The typewriters of 1800s did not even include the symbol in their keyboards. It was not until 1971, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was looking for a way to start sending emails outside of his host environment, and into another host environment that he noticed the barely used @ key on the keyboard of his computer. He realized it was barely used which made it easier for him to choose it. He used it to separate his name from the host network name – and changed the history of the barely used Amphora.

With this decision, the @ symbol was rescued from obscurity, and a life in history books. By using it as the bridge between individual and host network names, he made it the most important part of how humans connect and interact with each other in the digital world.

Rosetta Stone

One of the most amazing things about the world is how small and interconnected it is and always has been.  When we think of the ancient world, the civilizations seem distant and completely removed from each other – and yet somehow people traveled across continents, connected with each other, fought wars, and forever influenced or changed each other. And in this process of connecting with each other, they left a richer world for us to inherit.

Rosetta Stone

Nowhere is this global connectivity more evident than in the Rosetta Stone.  This slab of black granite with writing on it shows us the connections we have with each other – Alexander from Greece invades ancient Egypt and his General’s descendants become the Ptolemy rulers of Egypt. Much to the dislike of the Egyptian high priests and natives, they only read and write in Greek. The high priests write in Egyptian hieroglyphics, whereas native Egyptians write only Demotic. So all legal papers, or granite slabs as the case may be, have to be written in all three languages – particularly one in which a descendant of Greeks is staking his claim on the throne of Egypt.

City of Rosetta, etching by Thomas Milton 1801 – 1803

The slab gets moved around in Egypt first by the pharaohs and later the Turkish Ottomans, until over 1500 years later it is found in an Egyptian town called Rosetta by a Frenchman from Napoleon’s army – only to be taken from them by the British army under the Treaty of Alexandria. And now, another 200 years later the Egyptian museum would like Britain to return it to them.

Deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphic

It is these connections we have with each other that allowed humanity to gain insight into the greatest civilization the world has ever seen. The world becomes richer when we learn from our ancestors – and the deciphering of hieroglyphics through the Rosetta Stone gave us this knowledge and insight into the lives of ancient Egyptians.

On the surface, it’s an ancient stone monument, a decree by a King written in three languages. But to only see that in the Rosetta Stone is to not see it at all. Its power lies in what it represents, and its ability to remind us of the human need, since ancient times, to connect with each other across boundaries, to roam the wide expanse of this earth, and to understand our world and the people that inhabit it. (This vignette was written by my sister during her study abroad in London, after a trip to the British Museum. All photographs courtesy of British Museum)

Sunday Seven – Notre-Dame, Paris

On this Easter Sunday I started thinking of the magnificent Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which had a devastating fire almost a year ago. On Good Friday this year the cathedral had a small closed service. Regardless of one’s faith, the beginning of the rebirth of this medieval church from the ashes of that devastating fire, is reason enough to celebrate.

Maurice Utrillo (`1883 – 1955), Nore Dame, 1909. Musee de l’Orangerie
Marc Chagall, (1887 – 1985) Notre-Dame en gris, 1955
JMW Turner (1775 – 1851). Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, 1826. Tate, London
Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825). The Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Josephine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804, 1806-07. Musee du Louvre, Paris
Henri Matisse (1869 -1954) Notre-Dame,1900 Tate, London
Childe Hassam (1859 – 1935), Notre Dame Cathedral Paris, 1885. Detroit Institute of the Arts.
Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) Notre Dame de Paris, 1907. Whitney Museum of American Art

Sunday Seven – Elizabeth Regina

Today I heard a speech by Queen Elizabeth on TV – she was speaking to her nation to remain united and resolute in the face of the current epidemic.  What was startling for me about the speech was that she referred to a speech she and her sister gave in 1940 – that was 80 years ago!! I can’t imagine that there is any other world leader, part or present, that can say that. That got me thinking about all the brilliant, funny, and poignant things she may have said over the course of these years, and I decided that I would find some of the ones I liked and make that my Sunday Seven for this week.

  • We know, every one of us that in the end all will be well; for God will care for us and give us victory and peace. And when peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world a better and happier place (Radio address to the children of the Commonwealth on Oct 13, 1940).
  • It has been women who have breathed gentleness and care into the hard progress of humankind.
  • The upward course of a nation’s history is due in the long run to the soundness of heart of its average men and women.
  • I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.
  • Work is the rent you pay for the room you occupy on earth.
  • It’s all to do with the training: you can do a lot if you’re properly trained.
  • True patriotism, doesn’t exclude an understanding of the patriotism of others.
  • In remembering the appalling suffering of war on both sides, we recognize how precious is the peace we have built in Europe since 1945. strength and my stay..
  • He has, quite simply, been my strength and my stay all these years, and I and his whole family, and this, and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim or we shall ever know. (About her husband Prince Philip).

Contactless Delivery – in Medieval England

Many comparisons are being made nowadays of the current pandemic to Spanish flu in the early 1900s and the bubonic plague in the 1500s. Then, as now, the quickest way to stop the spread of the disease was through voluntary and enforced quarantines and keeping a safe distance from others. In towns across England one such reminder, of the social distancing that occurred, remains to this day.

Sitting unnoticed beside main roads, or near the outskirts of many towns all across England are stones that tell a story of the plague. These Plague Stones were hollowed out from the middle, filled with vinegar, and placed at the edge of town. Farmers were terrified to bring goods to market because of the plague, as a result of which there were severe food shortages in the towns. 

People from the town left coins in the vinegar and retreated a safe distance (one would assume of 6 feet or more) away from the stone. Farmers then came to the stone, picked up the – now sanitized with vinegar – coin from the hollow and left their farm produce, eggs, bread, etc. by the stone for the person standing a safe distance away.

And that was how Plague Stones played their part in stopping the spread of the plague the 1500s – they were the contactless delivery of today.

These Plague Stones teach us the importance of social distancing in fighting any pandemic. And more importantly, they teach us the value of knowing our History and learning from it – knowing how our ancestors got through the plague will teach us how to get through our current crisis. (Images courtesy of UK town travel websites – etc).

Counting the people – since 1790

After Independence, it was important for Congress to know the total population of the fledgling nation, and know where its people lived.  It was one of the first things that the new Congress instructed the government to do, and they wanted it done every 10 years (which continues to this day).This information was needed to form a representative government and to make the states pay their fair share of the Independence war bill.

And so on August 2, 1790 – the first census day  – the brave counters – also known as enumerators – rode out on horseback to find the people of this country and count them for the first census.

The census listed the head of household and counted 1) The number of free white males age 16 and over (to get a handle on the number of men available for military service) 2) The number of free white females  and all other free persons & 3) Number of slaves

There was supposed to be a form for recording the answers, but most often the Marshals had to provide whatever paper they could find to record the information. The census of 1790 took 18 months to complete, and counted 3.9 million people.

Census 1790 – Newburyport, MA

Counting the People

What started in 1790 continues to this day in America. Today, April 2, 2020 is the 24th Census day, and the first that can be filled online.

Sunday Seven – Walt Disney

Last week at a debate tournament, the impromptu speaking event was based on Walt Disney’s quotes – which seemed too perfect to not use them for this week’s Sunday Seven. These quotes make you realize what a happy and positive person Walt Disney really was.

  • I only hope that we will never lose sight of one thing – that it was started by a mouse.
  • All our dreams can come true, if we have courage to pursue them.
  • When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are.
  • It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.
  • There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.
  • The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.
  • We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.
  • When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.
  • When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably. The more you like yourself, the less you are like anyone else, which makes you unique.

Dresden: Phoenix Rising

Before World War II

February 13 – 15 , 1945 – the Allied bombing of Dresden

Aftermath & Rebuilding of Dresden – brick by brick

Dresden as part of communist DDR – the city lay in ruins until the 1990s

Dresden is rebuilt to its former glory after reunification

(All images courtesy of AP,, Dresden tourism sites)