Archaic Iconography

In many computer applications1, you’ll find a toolbar which contains a save tool & icon. Almost without fail, that icon is of a floppy disk (most closely resembling a blue 3 1/2″ floppy). But why not a computer hard drive (though those often end up looking like sardine tins in small icons) or a reel-to-reel tape? It is interesting that we sort of all agreed on one slice out of our technological history to agree upon as the standard for saving data. Of course, the irony of using this for to execute a save command is that very few computers today have a floppy drive at all and using these as a primary method of saving predates even the 3 1/2″ floppy itself.

I’ve often wondered if I’ll have to show my kids a old floppy disk to explain the history of the icon. That is, assuming I can even find one around here. When I did my Spring cleaning last year, I had to borrow a USB floppy drive from my father-in-law since I didn’t have a computer handy to even read those disks. Regardless, I believe the icon itself will be largely abstract to them; though I don’t doubt they’ll learn to recognize what function it represents immediately. They will become symbols more than direct representations, which isn’t a bad thing in of itself2

Similarly, you might find a old phone handset representing calls or phone functions and a snail-mail envelope for creating or checking e-mail. These, too, are outdated (or nearly, in the case of the envelope) tools to represent their digital replacements.

But then, what icon better represents saving data? Or making phone calls? Or sending mail?

  1. This is mostly a Windows and Linux GUI convention. You’ll occasionally find it in Mac applications, though mostly in those written by Microsoft. This is because in most Mac applications, the file-level commands are only found on the menu bar and not in a window toolbar. A lot of web applications use a similar icon, as well. []
  2. Pretty much all letters, numbers, and other symbols all had more concrete meaning at one time. Take, for example, the octothorpe/pound/hash/crosshatch/number symbol (#). According to The Elements of Typographic Style, this was once used in cartography to represent a village. That is, it was a symbol for a town square surrounded by eight fields. The fact that we have so many different names for this symbol is indicative of its many modern uses and that we have all but forgotten its original, more literal meaning. []

4 thoughts on “Archaic Iconography”

  1. On the Octothorpe: I had written this post actually several weeks prior to publishing it. I did some research on the octothorpe as an example of a map glyph becoming a common symbol. However, it turns out that this may very well be a complete myth and that some Bell Labs engineers just created it on the spot decades ago. Either way, has come to symbolize far more than it was ever intended to (as have many characters).

  2. These past few months I have had the opportunity for immersion in character symbol rich China. The written language here is completely symbols usually meaning exactly what the character looks like. For example 凹 is convex. 凸 is concave.

    Also learned of another type of symbol; this one made with the hand. When tea is poured it is polite and a gesture of thanks to tap the table with your index finger as the tea is poured. This has an interesting development.

    Typically today you tap with your index finger, which evolved from taping with both your index finger and middle finger, which evolved from tapping with the 2nd joint on the index and middle finger. This last method was used by various emperors to say thanks. It resembles kneeling. So since the emperor could clearly not kneel before his servant and usually did not even talk to them his fingers could do the kneeling and thanking for him.

    Why a computer disk symbol or the # made me think of this we may never figure out. Buy the way some time ago I had to purchase a 3.5″ floppy drive to access a few old disks. It collects dust now. You can even still purchase 5.25″ drives.

  3. I wrote a post last year about having to dig through some old 3.5″ floppies as part of our cleaning. We had to borrow a USB drive from my father-in-law just to read them, as we haven’t owned anything with that kind of drive in years.

    We’re also in trouble if we need to view a VHS tape, for that matter.

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