If only the Norsemen had Bluetooth


Let’s take a closer look at five common computer symbols and their origins. From Danish kings and Roman gods to units of measurement in jars.... Or how the past and present are more ‘LinkedIn’ than you might think.

1. The power button

The power button is everywhere. One of the most recognised symbols in the world, the open circle with the vertical line at the top is used all over the globe to turn devices on or off. But where does it come from?

The symbol actually refers to the binary system whereby 1 means ‘on’ and 0 stands for ‘off’. In 1973 the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), which governs the safety standards of electronic equipment introduced the open circle with a vertical line as a symbol for the standby mode. Very practical in non-English speaking countries where ‘on’ and ‘off’ are not always understood.


2. The “at” sign

Every email address contains an “at” sign. Is it a conception of the online era? Nothing could be further from the truth. The character first emerged in the 16th century when it was used as an abbreviation for 1 amphora (a jar with a standard volume of 23 litres). In the 19thcentury @ mostly meant ‘at the price of’, which also explains why it ended up on both typewriter and computer keyboards.

Next we fast forward to 1971 for the first online use of @. When programmer Raymond Tomlinson was working on ARPANET, the forerunner of the internet, he needed a symbol to separate the name of the individual from the name of the computer. His eye fell on the @ sign, which by that time was hardly used anymore. Could you imagine your life now without that funny “at” sign?


3. The WiFi symbol

WiFi is a kind of product label for wireless networks. Initially, quite a few logos were used to signify WiFi but the most popular one depicts an antenna. The starting point (the dot at the bottom) symbolises the WiFi source, the waves above it indicate the strength of the connection. 

These days everyone agrees to the logo, but how do you pronounce it exactly? Is it wi:fi:? Or waifai? Well, WiFi stands for wireless and free communication so as far as we’re concerned you can pronounce it any way you like.


4. The USB symbol

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, a universal standard for the connection of peripheral equipment to computers. But where did the symbol originate?

Based on the trident of Neptune, the Roman sea god, every prong is topped by a different geometric symbol: a circle, a square and a triangle. These symbolise the universal character of USB. Or do you see USB as a relic of the past and because you prefer to work in the cloud?


5. The Bluetooth symbol

And last but not least, the world’s most inspiring symbol: the Bluetooth symbol. Ever thought this mysterious symbol harks back to the nickname of Danish king Harald I? King Harald was also known as Harold Bluetooth, possibly because of a conspicuous rotting tooth in his mouth or maybe because he favoured the colour blue. The Bluetooth symbol consists of Harald’s initials (H and B), but then in the runic alphabet. 

The fact that a communication protocol is named after Harald I is mainly due to his ability to unite the different nations under his rule, much like Bluetooth connects us with multiple peripheral devices.

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