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?
It’s plastered on T-shirts; it tells you which button will start your Prius; it’s even been used on NYC condom wrappers. As far back back as World War II 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. Hell yeah, IEEE. Way to take a stand.
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; yadda yadda yadda. What you might not know is that the Bluetooth symbol is actually a combination of the two runes that represent Harald’s initials. It just so happens the first Bluetooth receptor also had a “teeth-like” shape, and was – you guessed it – blue. But the symbolic interplay doesn’t end there. As the Bluetooth SIG notes, Blåtand “was instrumental in uniting warring factions in parts of what are now Norway, Sweden, and Denmark – just as Bluetooth technology is designed to allow collaboration between differing industries such as the computing, mobile phone and automotive markets.”
What do Swedish campgrounds and overuse of the Apple logo have in common? A lot, according to Andy Hertzfeld of the original Mac development team. While working with other team members to translate menu commands directly to the keyboard, Hertzfeld and his team decided to add a special function key. The idea was simple: When pressed in combination with other keys, this “Apple key” would select the corresponding menu command. Jobs hated it – or more precisely the symbol used to represent the button – which was yet another picture of the Apple logo. Hertzfeld recalls his reaction: “There are too many Apples on the screen! It’s ridiculous! We’re taking the Apple logo in vain!” A hasty redesign followed, in which bitmap artist Susan Kare pored through an international symbol dictionary and settled on one floral symbol that, in Sweden, indicated a noteworthy attraction in a campground. Alternately known as the Gorgon loop, the splat, the infinite loop, and, in the Unicode standard, a “place of interest sign,” the command symbol has remained a mainstay on Apple keyboards to this day.