Link - article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams

      Familiar Symbols and Emblems - Their Origin and Meaning (with Some
        Unexpected Appearances in Arts)

      We see various symbols and signs every day, and maybe think ‘I know what
      that means, but I wonder where it came from’? Well, here’s a look at some
      of mankind’s more familiar symbols' origin and meaning, plus some
      interesting art and photography associated with them:

      1. Peace Symbol

      The peace symbol dates from 1958 and was designed for the Campaign for
      Nuclear Disarmament or CND. The emblem combines the semaphore signals for
      N and D, meaning Nuclear Disarmament. The letter ‘N’ is represented by two
      flags held in an upside-down V, while ‘D’ has one flag pointed up and the
      other pointed straight down. Another theory is that the Roman emperor Nero
      originally devised the image. He ordered Saint Peter to be crucified
      upside down and the sign really depicts a broken cross. 
      There are also claims that the modern sign for universal peace was actually linked to the
      devil in the medieval period. However, it is generally accepted that the
      peace symbol as we know it has its origins in the disarmament movement of
      the late 1950’s.

      (top image credit:
        Fernando Gregory)
      (left image credit:
        Jeff Wignall, right -
        Anastasia Volkova)

      2. Medical Symbols

      A staff or rod, with a snake curled around it, is the symbol of the
      medical profession. Some say that it has relation to the story of Exodus
      in the Bible, when Moses threw down his staff and it devoured other snakes
      (crocodiles) of Egyptian court magicians. Exodus 7:12 - "Each of them
      threw his staff down, and they all became large snakes. But Aaron's staff
      swallowed theirs." 
      The other theory is that the staff or rod belongs to
      Aesculapius (Roman) or Asklepios (Greek), the ancient god of medicine. The
      children of Asculapius also have associations with doctors. Hygieia, from
      where we get the word hygiene, was the goddess of health, while Panaceia,
      who gave us the word panacea for a universal cure, was the goddess of
      healing. In the modern era, the staff and snake is the symbol of the many
      medical associations and societies around the world.


      The sign for Emergency Medical Services, or EMS, also makes use of the
      snake (top right image). Due to its strong links with medicine, the rod is
      also seen in pharmacology, although the mortar and pestle are the images
      most commonly associated with pharmacists:

      (image on the right is the promotional poster for the "House M.D."

      Pharmacy uses special character, often written as ‘rx’, which is the
      symbol for medical prescriptions. Pharmaceutical organizations also use
      other symbols, such as the Bowl of Hygieia, again making use of a snake
      (see above on the left).

      3. The Red Cross Symbol

      Appalled by the lack of medical care given to the wounded and dying after
      the battle of Solferino between France and Austria in 1859, Swiss
      businessman Jean-Henri Dunant proposed the creation of a neutral
      organization to care for the suffering in wartime. The International Red
      Cross movement began in 1863 and the original Geneva Convention,
      recognizing the special status of wounded and medical personnel on the
      battlefield, dates from 1864. The Red Cross on a white background is the
      reverse of the flag of Switzerland, Dunant’s native country. The white
      flag was internationally recognized as signifying a wish to surrender and
      Switzerland also had a long history of neutrality. The red cross on a
      white flag could also be easily recognized from a distance, making it an
      ideal emblem.

      (image credit:

      This is unrelated (it does not even has a red cross painted anywhere on
      it), but it's simply gorgeous... An ambulance from the 1970s, something
      for a "Ghostbusters" sequel, perhaps? -


      4. The Smiley Face

      Harvey Ball originally designed the first Smiley face in 1963 for State
      Mutual Life Assurance Company. To improve employee morale after a recent
      merger, the face was to be displayed on buttons, posters and desk cards.
      The buttons became very popular, with more than 50 million sold by 1971.
      Harvey Ball was only paid $45 for his work, having never applied for a
      trademark, but according to his son, he never regretted that decision.

      (right image credit:
        Matt Schmachtenberg)

      (image credit:

      You can also see a three-eyed variant from the 1997 comic book series

      5. Atomic Energy Symbols

      Here we see the symbol for atomic energy (made by a mass of people in
      Pyongyang, North Korea):

      (image credit:
        Eric Lafforgue)

      Atomic cookies, anyone?

      (image credit:

      Also very persistent is the "atomic explosion / full-grown tree"

      (images: left
        via; right - "Time Destroys All", by
        Simon Cogen; bottom - buy print

      The international radiation symbol first appeared in 1946 and was
      originally magenta on a blue background, until the more recognizable
      yellow and black version was adopted. However, in 2007, it was announced
      that there would be an additional symbol to represent radioactive hazards,
      after surveys indicated that children often mistook the yellow and black
      sign for a propeller, not something to be that frightened of. The new
      supplementary sign clearly shows radiation, the risk of death and the need
      to run away, combined with the universal colour of red for danger. 
      On the right you see the "Hulk Alert" variation, made by
      Aron Rubin:

      (image credit:
        Aron Rubin)

      6. Biohazards Symbol

      This symbol was originally designed by Dow Chemical for their containment
      products in 1966, but is now recognized as the universal sign for


      (The "Biohazard Wheel", designed by
        James Coleman; right image - "Biohazard Cow"

      7. Dollar & British Pound Signs

      The dollar sign is derived from the Spanish-Mexican peso, known as the
      Spanish dollar or pieces of eight. This currency unit was widely used in
      North America at the time of the American Revolution in the late
      eighteenth century. The most widely accepted theory is that the dollar
      sign comes from the Spanish and Mexican abbreviation for peso, which was
      ‘ps’. Over time the ‘s’ began to be written over the ‘p’, which would
      slightly resemble the $ sign. Another theory is that the sign represents a
      slash through the number eight, as in pieces of eight.

      (original unknown)

      This dollar sign is made out of matches, and only a moment away from being
      lit up. Very symbolic, indeed:

      (Chicago Art Department $200 exhibition, image

      This sign depicts the pound sterling, the national currency of the United
      Kingdom, and originates in the capital letter ‘L’. This stood for libra,
      the main Roman unit of weight, which comes form the Latin word for balance
      or scales, hence the astrological sign of Libra. The pound as a unit of
      currency derives from the fact that it was originally the value of one
      pound of pure silver.

      (image credit:
        Glenn Millington)

      We will continue covering the origin of symbols and their sometimes
      unexpected appearance in various art forms, but for now here is just a
      couple of interesting facts: 
      1) Regarding the Communist
      Hammer & Sickle symbol: 
      The hammer and sickle is known as the
      symbol of communism and was designed at the time of the Russian
      Revolution. The hammer represents industrial workers and the sickle those
      working in agriculture or the peasantry. Together the two objects signify
      the unity of the working people. This is all well and good, but - 
      On the old Soviet coat of arms you can clearly see these familiar Communist
      hammer & sickle symbols stuck on top of the WHOLE WORLD!! Does that
      signify that the Soviets wanted to conquer the whole world with their
      World Revolution? -


      Soviet propaganda vehemently denied any attempts at world domination, and
      here it was - right on their own coat-of-arms, in front of the whole
      world, clearly showing otherwise... The ultimate irony, it seems. 
      2) Something about the Male / Mars symbol - it's interesting that originally
      the VOLVO company had a logo with Mars symbol in it:


      Somebody should draw the alternate VOLVO logo, with a Venus element in it
      - just to be fair to all lady drivers out there.


      Simon Rose is the
        author of science fiction and fantasy novels for children, including
        The Alchemist's Portrait,
        The Sorcerer's Letterbox,
        The Clone Conspiracy,
        The Emerald Curse,
        The Heretic's Tomb
        The Doomsday Mask.


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Visual Caffeine, Issue 8

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Imperial Dreams: Art Deco Update

Wings, Gears, & Glamorous Ladies

1970s SciFi
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Blogger Kaiser said...

Regarding Volvo, is is supposed to mean "I am rotating". I believe it is related to the word revolving.

Blogger Kaiser said...

Oh, and an additional tidbit of information. I was researching the medical symbol and according to Wiki the winged snake is a military SNAFU.
Due to it being wikipedia it should be taken with a grain of salt or two.
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_of_Asclepius

Blogger Rally said...

Further on the Volvo symbol: the Mars symbol is used as it is also the old alchemical symbol for iron, meant to show the solidity of Volvo products, as well as a solidarity with the traditional Swedish iron industry. More on the Volvo logo at: http://www.volvoclub.org.uk/history/volvo_logo.shtml

Anonymous Danny said...

I learned in a parasitology class that the medical symbol is actually related to the old extraction procedure of the parasite Dracunculus medinensis (or guinea worm).

This parasite is coaxed out the ankle to lay it's eggs in water and the exposed tip is then slowly wrapped up around a stick.

Anonymous Brian said...

The Medical Symbol is more commonly believed to be derived not from the story of Moses vs Pharaoh's magicians, But from the Old Testament story of the Children of Israel being bitten by poisonous serpents. Moses was commanded to make a brass serpent and set it on a pole. All who looked upon it would be healed (Hence the continued use of the symbol.) According to the story, Thousands died because the cure was to easy to be believed.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The bible reference regarding Exodus 7:12 is completely wrong, I dont know how people liken that one to the snake pole.

The real origin of the snake pole is found in Numbers 21:7-9:"Finally the people came to Moses and said: “We have sinned, because we have spoken against Jehovah and against you. Intercede with Jehovah that he may remove the serpents from upon us.” And Moses went interceding in behalf of the people. 8 Then Jehovah said to Moses: “Make for yourself a fiery snake and place it upon a signal pole. And it must occur that when anyone has been bitten, he then has to look at it and so must keep alive.” 9 Moses at once made a serpent of copper and placed it upon the signal pole; and it did occur that if a serpent had bitten a man and he gazed at the copper serpent, he then kept alive."-NWT Bible

Anonymous mysunner said...

the cnd logo is also an inverted rune of protection if you ignore the circle around it

Blogger kfblkkbl said...

The name of the founder of Red Cross was not Dunat but Dunant.

Anonymous Charlie Brown said...

Volvo: the company not "originally" had a Mars symbol in its logo, but still has. You can see it on the grille of every Volvo car.

Blogger Jon said...

As a child of the Cold War, I grew up with a healthy respect and knowledge of the dangers of nuclear radiation, and the trefoil symbol inspired me with appropriate fear-- but I always wondered what the significance of the propellor-shape was, and what it could possibly have to do with radiation. As a kid, I speculated that it might be a stylized skull of some deformed, mutated radiation victim.

According to Paul Frame at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (http://www.orau.org/ptp/articlesstories/radwarnsymbstory.htm) the radiation trefoil was just some scientists' attempt to symbolize activity radiating from an atom. The "propeller blades" represent radiating activity proceeding from the central dot which represents an atom:

"The three-bladed radiation warning symbol, as we currently know it, was "doodled" out at the University of California Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley sometime in 1946 by a small group of people. This event was described in a letter written in 1952 by Nels Garden, head of the Health Chemistry Group at the Radiation Laboratory: "A number of people in the group took an interest in suggesting different motifs, and the one arousing the most interest was a design which was supposed to represent activity radiating from an atom."

Blogger Skipweasel said...

Definitely a spot of confusion with the whole snake/staff thing.

The medical example linked with Asclepius has one snake and no wings, the caduceus, as carried by Hermes/Mercury has wings and two snakes.

Blogger Skipweasel said...

Oh, and though the symbol used by Volvo can indeed be the symbol for Mars, it was used by them for one of its other aspects, that of iron.

Perhaps your feminised idea would be fun though - I'm sure there's a market for Vulva cars.

Blogger Diego said...

The Dollar sign explanation is wrong, the most accepted theory is that it represents a detail of the Spanish Coat of Arms, called the Hercules Columns.

Info on Wikipedia (Spanish):


Anonymous BGE said...

The new radioactivity hazard sign is controversial because it makes use of the international emergency exit "running man" symbol. A symbol most people associate with safe passage. Especially red-green color blind will not detect the different background color. So the sign is both cluttered and may cause people harm.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

About smiley :


Blogger Passy said...

More about the dollar: Yes, they are the pillars of Hercules. The "S" is the slogan of Spain "Plus Ultra" which translates as "always beyond." One way to encourage the navy. The columns and the theme are still in the coat of arms.


Blogger Airmail56 said...

During the American Civil War, all military materials were maked to help prevent theft. The 'U' 'S' markings (United States) were often imposed on top of each other to same time and money. This is what became the symbol of our currency.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

the peace symbol design is also widely believed to have been inspired by the footprint of a dove...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh, and also from Wikipedia, Gerald Holtom, the artist and designer: "I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya's peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it."

Anonymous Amanda said...

The "medical symbol" is supposed to be just a serpent around a staff. It's called the Rod of Asclepius or just an asklepian. The symbol that you show, with the two serpents and wings, is a Greek caduceus.

Anonymous Snag said...

Amanda is quite correct with the medical symbol. It is Greek and far pre-dates biblical anecdotes !

The Red-Cross symbol has similar Greek origins. It denotes a healing concoction of crushed "St John's Wort" in olive oil. It is photo-sensitive and turns red when exposed to sunlight. It can still be found in Greek markets. The crusaders brought it back to England where the symbol became synonymous with St John's Ambulance and later the Red Cross.

I have Greek ancestry.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great site (and book) about symbols.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have also heard that the medical symbol is taken from a palace in Trivandrum, India. There is a wooden bed in this palace (don't remember what wood) that has this symbol on its sides (I have seen this). It is believed that lying on this bed cures a person of various diseases (haven't tried this).

Blogger Marrock said...

The peace symbol it's also the rune of protection inverted in a circle, which is also a symbol of protection or warding

Blogger tanburo said...

As forthe russians thinking all the World would become communist-helloo!!
Ever doubt that? Proletarians of the world, unite..rings a bell?
Oh and btw, didn't the rest of the world, at the same time, hope for the commies to turn capitalist, which, as we live to see, did come true..

Anonymous Mike said...

re: the British pound symbol ..... interesting fact: the pound symbol can be found on the bottom of most pint mugs. Maybe a pint of beer used to cost only one pound?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greeks do not predate Jews...


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