Why is THIS the power symbol? [LGR Retrospective]


The power symbol. I imagine most

never give it much thought. Perhaps you just

accept that it's the symbol for power,

one of those things that's seemingly been around

forever. But someone had to come

up with it at some point in the past, and

it turns out there is a clear reason

that it looks the way it does. Not only

that, but there's more than one symbol

for power when it comes to technology

and each one means something different.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

To answer the big question of why the power

symbol looks like this you have to take

apart the symbol itself. This line right

here is meant to symbolize the number

one and the circular part symbolizes

zero. The idea comes from the binary

system where one means on and zero means

off, put them together and you have a

symbol that is supposed to be easily

understood as the symbol for power

turning on and off regardless of what

language the end user speaks.

Now, before this symbol existed power switches were

often simply labeled with the word on or off,

and sometimes they still are today,

there's actually nothing forcing anyone

to use the power symbol on their

products. But a dilemma arose during the

mid 20th century when electronic imports

and exports were exploding and the words

on and off were obviously only

meaningful to English speakers.

Combined with the fact that words are arguably

less elegant and compact than an icon of

some kind, and it was decided that an

international power symbol was needed.

And it wasn't just electronics and

appliances that needed a ubiquitous

language agnostic symbol, automobile

sales were quickly turning into a global

market as well, and there are a ton of

technical functions that need labeling,

many of which are commonplace across

vehicles worldwide.

Enter the International Electrotechnical Commission

or IEC, currently based in

Geneva, Switzerland. The IEC is a

non-profit non-governmental

international standards organization,

one of many groups that exists with the goal

of standardizing electrical technologies.

Universal power symbols were first

introduced in 1973

through the International Electrotechnical Commission 60417 Standard,

titled "Graphical Symbols for Use on Equipment."

The power symbol we talked

about earlier is actually called IEC 60417/5009

It is retroactively referred to as the

standby symbol. This symbol actually

means that pressing it can toggle the

device's power state, but does not

completely cut off power at the power

supply or the mains itself. That's why

you see this so often on desktop

computers and laptops because, pressing

it often engages a soft reset or soft

power off. Conversely if you look at the

power switch on a power supply, you'll

probably see the line and the circle of

the power symbol separately on each side

of the switch.

That means that toggling the switch

one way or another will

enable or disable the power completely.

Similarly there is the power on/off

symbol, which has the line inside of the

circle, and this means that pressing it

will either power a device fully on or

fully off with nothing in between.

And then there's a somewhat related symbol,

the waning crescent moon known as the

power sleep symbol. This is mostly seen

on desktop computer keyboards and

indicates that pressing it will put the

machine into sleep mode without cutting

power. This was created by the Institute

of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)

under the notion that the standby symbol

already in use was too vague. But yeah,

the full IEC 604 17 standard is

absolutely massive and pretty

fascinating if you ask me, defining

thousands of internationally used

symbols. Pretty much every button or

function you see on electronics,

automobiles and appliances made since

the mid-70s came from this list of

definitions: power standby, high beams, play,

pause, low battery, macro mode, risk of

electric shock, fragile, handle with care,

wireless communication, tape recorder,

operating system, or command key, the list

goes on and on. I find this whole list

oddly enjoyable to sift through.

There's just a satisfying aesthetic to these

things, and a minimalist yet effective

artistry going on, and it's kind of fun

to pick one you don't know and try to

guess what it means without looking it up;

after all these are meant to be

understandable regardless of what

language you speak. There is something

admirable about the pursuit of trying to

say the most by using the absolute least,

a sort of modern hieroglyphics,

understood not by any one community, but

by an entire planet. But as for the power

symbol in particular it seems to have

the most universal appeal, regardless of

its original meaning or intent. You see

it on t-shirts, corporate logos,

art exhibits, album covers, and even things

like cufflinks, earrings and tattoos.

Of all the symbols defined in IEC 60417,

the one for power is arguably the one to have

best achieved its goal of ubiquity

around the world, especially among the

tech loving community. Maybe it's just me,

but I think it's pretty neat to think

about the symbols we use every day

without a second glance, and now maybe you will too.


And if you enjoyed this video, I think

you might like some of my others. I like

covering niche tech topics, it's just kind

of my thing, if you like that stick

around, and as always thank you very much

for watching LGR.