The secret histories of the computer symbols…

They are road signs for your daily rituals-the instantly recognized symbols and icons you press, click, and ogle countless times a day when you interact with your computer. But how much do you know about their origins?

As far back back as WWII engineers used the binary system to label individual power buttons, toggles and rotary switches: a 1 meant “on,” and a 0 meant off. In 1973, the International Electrotechnical Commission vaguely codified a broken circle with a line inside it as “standby power state,” and sticks to that story even now. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, however, decided that was too vague, and altered the definition to simply mean power.

You’ve probably heard the story of 10th Century Danish King, Harald Blåtand, as it relates to Bluetooth, right? He was renowned connoisseur of blueberries; at least one of this teeth was permanently stained blue. What you might not know is that the Bluetooth symbol is actually a combination of the two runes that represent Harald’s initials.

It has been known by many names: the snail (France and Italy), the little mouse (China), the monkey’s tail (Germany). In 1971, a Bolt, Beranek & Newman programmer Raymond Tomlinson decided to insert the symbol between computer network addresses to separate the user from the terminal. Prior to Tomlinson’s use, the @ also graced the keyboard of the American Underwood in 1885 as an accounting shorthand symbol meaning “at the rate of.” Go back even further and things start to get hazy. Some suggest that @ has its origins in the sixth century, when monks adopted it as a better way of wirting the word ad-Latin for “at” or “toward”-that was not so easily confused with AD, the designation for Anno Domini, or the the years after the death of Christ.

While the Play/Pause symbols aren’t native to computers, they’ve made their way onto keyboards, media players (real and virtual), and every other device capable of playing audio or video. Unfortunately, neither the right-pointing triangle nor the double pause bars seem to have a definitive origin. They first appeared as tape transport symbols on reel-to-reel tape decks during the mid-1960s. In some cases, they were accompanied by the (double triangle) rewind and fast forward symbols. The direction of the play arrow indicated the direction the tape would move. Easy.

As far as the pause symbol goes, many have noted it resembles an the notation for an open connection on an electrical schematic. Some say it is simply a stop symbol with a chunk carved out of its center. We’d put our money on a more classical origin: In musical notation, the caesura indicates a-wait for it-pause.

Created as part of the USB 1.0 spec, the USB icon was drawn to resemble Neptune’s Trident, the mighty Dreizack. (But that doesn’t mean you should go around stabbing people or trying to domesticate dolphins with your flash drive.) In lieu of the pointed triangles at the tip of the three-pronged spear, the USB Promoters decided to alter the shapes to a triangle, square and circle. This was done to signify all the different peripherals that could be attached using the standard.

People were confused by “the standby state.” It seemed counter-intuitive for an electronic device to be neither on nor off. So, after the IEEE nicked the ICE’s standby button (remember?), it decided some rechristening was in order. The governing body re-named standby mode “sleep,” to invoke the state where humans are neither on nor off. Today, a crescent moon is the de facto sleep state symbol on devices in the US and Europe. Its metaphorical power is undeniable! Travel to Japan, though, and you’ll probably see the occasional Zzzz button.

Despite being “invented” many years prior, the thing we now recognize as the Ethernet port symbol was actually designed by IBM’s David Hill. According to Hill, the symbol was part of a set of symbols that were all meant to depict the various local area network connections available at the time. The array of blocks, which are purposefully non-hierarchical, each represent computers/terminals. While Hill makes no specific mention of Bob Metcalfe’s earliest Ethernet sketches, it’s easy to see how the modern symbol uses them for inspiration.



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