The most familiar UI symbols — where do they come from? Part 2 : Communication

We’re now beyond the point at which many symbols within technology have any physical meaning. Typewriters, telephones and even envelopes are disappearing from common sight yet have informed those familiar icons we see on our devices every day — in design terms it’s called skeumorphism.

Let’s look at where and, if possible, when they come from.

The phone handset

The telephone is one of the most significant technological developments of the last 150 years.

Initially there existed a wide range of curious devices — many with separate mouth and earpieces.

A key design breakthrough was the appearance of the all-in-one handset in the late 1800’s; providing a simpler and more comfortable experience.

But it wasn’t until the early 1900’s with the invention of bakelite — an early plastic — where that familiar handset shape first appeared.

Western Electric F1 220 Telephone (1930s)

The Email envelope

The first envelopes date back to 3500 BC in the Middle East and were hollow clay containers containing contractual or financial objects (i.e. money) sent to individuals.

The next key development was the Chinese invention of paper in 2 BC — where envelopes known as “chih poh” were used, again used to distribute money.

Envelopes as we know them today originated shortly before the turn of the 19th century when the manufacturing process was able to pre-gum paper, but it was the enforcement of the diamond-shaped sheet (initially a novelty hand-cut shape) as a postal standard by the British Government around 1840 that placed the envelope firmly into a global consciousness.

Jumping forward to the 1960’s and 70’s, and with the development of the earliest computer interfaces, the universal familiarity of that envelope found its place and isn’t showing any signs of disappearing just yet.

The @ character

Known as the ‘little mouse’ by the Chinese, ‘the snail’ by the French and most charmingly ‘the monkey’s tail’ by the Germans; the ‘at’ character was first used in computing way back in 1971 within a program for the legendary ARPANET.

Prior to that, it had graced typewriters such as the American Underwood as far back as 1885 as accounting shorthand meaning ‘at the rate of’.

American Underwood Typewriter (unknown date for this example)
@ symbol detail

Further back still and things become more vague — there is a claim that in the 6th century, Monks adopted the @ character to differ from AD; the acronym for Anno Domini.

So, from religion to accounting and computing, that little character has quite a history.

The Pencil symbol

Possibly one of the quirkiest applications of a symbol we see regularly ; a pencil representing typing on a keyboard, the reasons behind this can be looked at as either practical or romantic.

From the practical angle; the form of a pencil is easier to recognise (and reproduce on small or low pixel-detail icons) than that of a keyboard — a rectangle with a bunch of keys inside.

From the romantic angle; well surely the best stories and prose have been written by hand and not on a keyboard, so why not inspire the user with a pencil symbol?!

Chris Williams is a Senior Graphic and User Interface Designer at Croomo.

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