Symbolic questions

By Anna Sandiford 11/06/2010 1


I was watching Top Gear the other day and James May was driving the woman who was responsible for designing all of the British roadsigns back in the 1950s.  Practically all of the signs are still used today and, as a testament to how well they were designed, they haven’t dated.  The big thing about British road signs (apart from the ones showing place names) is that they don’t use words – very important when more and more drivers are coming in from Europe.  Anyway, the longevity of the signs got me thinking about how some symbols are still used today even though the item they represent has changed wildly since the symbol was first used.

The most obvious is the telephone. If you Google “telephone”, the image that turns up is something like this: 

Now I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had a phone like that since the 1970s but when I asked a 4 year old to draw a picture of a phone, she drew a stylised version of the standard curly wire phone. If you ask a person to draw a phone box, chances are it’ll be box-shaped and red (apart from the Dr Who fans) – they were decommissioned in England in the 1980s.

Test tubes is another one. I haven’t seen a traditional glass cylindrical test tube since I left school. The ones I use now are entirely different and there are so many types from which to choose. So why does CSI still have the old tubes in old tube racks?

(Just as an aside, do schools still use Bunsen burners?  I was showing a visiting Chinese student how to do some pollen processing and when I took the Bunsen burner out of the cupboard, turned on the gas and lit it she was stunned that a naked flame was allowed inside. And she’d never heard of nor seen a Bunsen burner before.)

Drawing a television is another interesting image – children seem to draw TVs that look like those with a tube and bunny-ear antennae but there aren’t too many of those around any more.
Office ClipArt

A key is often drawn as if it fits a mortice lock, but I can’t think of anything we have that has a mortice lock on it.A rocket usually looks like something from Joe 90. A boat looks like something the Owl and the Pussycat would sail away in. Perhaps these things are drawn the way they are because they are so distinctive.

On a slightly different tack, why do the car wheels seemingly swap sides on the Slippery Road sign?

While I’m at it, I know people will know the answer to this, but why is this the symbol for radioactivity or nuclear?

Why does this mean biohazard?

Just some thoughts for a Friday afternoon….


One Response to “Symbolic questions”

  • Yes, schools still do use bunsen burners 🙂 And we have a mortice-type key that fits a garage door!

    Ah, someone else wonders about the car wheels & the slippery road sign. That one puzzles me every time I see it 🙂