Bell Telephone Laboratories, one-time research subsidiary of American telecoms giant AT&T, has produced some of the 20th century’s most influential developments in the worlds of science and technology. It boasts seven Nobel Prizes in Physics awarded for, among other things, a demonstration of the wave nature of matter, the invention of the transistor and the discovery of background cosmic radiation. Other notable products of this storied research centre include the laser, radio astronomy, the first communications satellite and the UNIX operating system, which forms a key component of the internet and of modern computing in general.
The ‘#’ symbol is something of a problem child. It seems at first to be quite innocuous, a jack-of-all-trades whose names and uses correspond in a pleasingly systematic manner: ‘#5’ is read ‘number five’, leading to the name ‘number sign’; in North America, ‘5#’ means ‘five pounds in weight’, giving ‘pound sign’, while the cross-hatching suggested by its shape leads to the commonly used British name of ‘hash sign’.