Tech

The story of the Mac command key symbol is way more fascinating that you'd expect

Posted by
Tom Victor
Published
apple

The symbol on the command key was chosen decades ago, but its origins go back much further

If you’re reading this story on a Mac computer, take a look down at your keyboard.

You probably haven’t given it much thought before. You’re probably too busy wondering if it’s time to replace your computer or whether you should wait a little longer before taking the plunge. But you should take a look now.

Everything’s the same as on your old Windows PC, right? Well, apart from a few little things. That symbol on the ‘command’ key, for example.

“That does look a little weird, doesn’t it,” you whisper to yourself. “I wonder if there’s an interesting story behind it.” Well, guess what…

keyboard

Andy Hertzfeld, a member of Apple’s development team in the early days, explained how the icon came about back in the ‘80s.

It’s difficult to come up with a small icon that means “command”, and we didn’t think of anything right away, he wrote, explaining that the original plan was to use the Apple logo on that button before Steve Jobs demanded they go with something else.

“We thought it was important for the user to be able to invoke every menu command directly from the keyboard, so we added a special key to the keyboard to invoke menu commands, just like our predecessor, Lisa. We called it the “Apple key”; when pressed in combination with another key, it selected the corresponding menu command. We displayed a little Apple logo on the right side of every menu item with a keyboard command, to associate the key with the command.

“One day, late in the afternoon, Steve Jobs burst into the software fishbowl area in Bandley III, upset about something. This was not unusual. I think he had just seen MacDraw for the first time, which had longer menus than our other applications.

“There are too many Apples on the screen! It’s ridiculous! We’re taking the Apple logo in vain! We’ve got to stop doing that!”

“Our bitmap artist Susan Kare had a comprehensive international symbol dictionary and she leafed through it, looking for an appropriate symbol that was distinctive, attractive and had at least something to do with the concept of a menu command.

“Finally she came across a floral symbol that was used in Sweden to indicate an interesting feature or attraction in a campground… Twenty years later, even in OS X, the Macintosh still has a little bit of a Swedish campground in it.”

Okay, that’s part of the mystery solved, but why do the Swedes (and those in a handful of other countries) use that symbol? Well, it turns out there’s an interesting story behind that too.

You probably haven’t been to Borgholm Castle, situated on the 25,000-population island of Oland in the Baltic Sea, off Sweden’s east coast.

Even if you have visited the 17th-century fortress, now home to a museum, you’re probably wondering what it has to do with the command symbol.

Well, unless you took a helicopter in, you probably haven’t seen the castle from above.

That’s right, it’s the exact same symbol from Swedish road signs and, yes, your computer. It is unclear whether those designing the road signs were inspired by the castle specifically, or whether they took their inspiration from the centuries-old Gotlandic symbol which shares its design.

If Steve Jobs hadn’t objected to the dev team’s original plans to use the Apple logo on the command button, we might never have known about Borgholm Castle, and that would have been a shame.

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(Images: Pixabay/Getty)