Why is the settings icon either associated with gears or a wrench + screwdriver

  • I was wondering what the association between gears and settings is because the symbolism/iconography is not clear to me. I can see that in the old days people might have used the wrench or screwdriver (sometimes a hammer as well) to make adjustments to machinery that is equivalent to changing settings, but these days it is mostly switches and toggles but I believe people prefer to stick with icons that they are familiar and comfortable with.

    As a side question, I have wondered just how many teeth on a cog/gear does it take to make it look like a settings symbol (and whether it should be even or odd numbered). It seems like too many or too few can be unclear, and it seems like the optimum number is between 6-8.

    Gears are associated with changing watch settings. I think that might be the origin.

    It would be interesting to know when this icon was introduced.

    It's also interesting that Chrome removed its wrench icon in favor of the hamburger a while ago: http://www.omgchrome.com/google-chrome-wrench-menu-to-be-replaced/

    @mbillard I always thought that the so-called "hamburger" was a ventilation grille, because before I knew I could click it, it turned red, and I thought, "Uh oh! Chrome is overheating!"

  • Monomeeth

    Monomeeth Correct answer

    5 years ago

    Traditionally the operation of a mechanical tool was determined by the physical constraint of the position/type/size of the gears used. So if you wanted to change a tool setting, you would have to manually make an alteration to the gear(s). Many machines worked this way, even ones you would not think of, such as printing presses, folding machines, etc.

    Therefore, using a gear for settings is a metaphor that has made its way into our visual language lexicon. If you want to change how 'something' operates you need to alter the inner-workings of the system, which was often the gears.

    Another metaphor for its use is that of a traditional watch. In fact many watches are now designed so that the user can see the actual inner workings.

    In terms of software, Windows 95 introduced a 'gear' as part of its Settings Start Menu option. This is the first use of it I'm aware of in terms of software. Refer to image below:

    Windows 95 Settings cog icon

    In more recent times, the original iPhone OS (introduced in January 2007 but not available to consumers until June 2007) used a detailed gear icon for its Settings. This has been maintained (and enhanced) within recent versions of Apple's iOS. Apple then also adopted a similar icon for it's System Preferences in Mac OS X 10.5 which was released on 26 October 2007.

    The popularity of iOS helped to encourage broader adoption of the gear icon as a metaphor for settings, and a plethora of gear icons have appeared on digital imaging stock libraries (e.g. iStockphoto.com) in recent years.

    As for what was used to portray 'settings' before a gears icon, you would have to assume that there was no need for such an icon until the onset of graphical user interfaces. And, since Apple were the first to use a graphical user interface in the mainstream with the launch of the Macintosh computer in January 1984, you'd probably have to go back to when the Mac OS first introduced a Control Panel. As far as I'm aware, the first control panel was introduced in February 1986 with Mac OS 1 (which was actually the fifth version of the OS). Initially the control panel was just a single desk accessory type application containing all the settings within it, and this had no icon associated with it at all. See the Mac OS 1 screenshot below for how this appeared:

    enter image description here

    Despite many improvements over the years, this approach remained largely the same. The screenshot below is from Mac OS 6 introduced in April 1988 (that's right, from Mac OS 1 to Mac OS 6 in only two years). Note the lack of icons next to the Control Panel option):

    enter image description here

    It wasn't until the launch of System 7 in May 1991 that control panels and preferences were separated into individual small application-like processes accessible from two folders within the System Folder. Custom folder icons were introduced to portray these and neither contained gears, cogs, wrenches or screwdrivers! Instead they used a 'slider' and 'dials' (or radio buttons). In the Mac OS 7.0.1 screenshot below note the folder icons for Control Panels and Preferences:

    enter image description here

    Mac OS 8 (launched in July 1997) updated these icons, but they were newer reflections of the existing ones. Note in the screenshot below that they're still folder icons using sliders and dials/buttons (not cogs/gears etc). This is important because Mac OS 8 was launched after Windows 95 which did use a cog/gear to portray settings (hence my earlier notion that it was probably the first software to do so).

    enter image description here

    Going back now to your question of how many teeth it takes to make a cog/gear look like a settings symbol, please refer to this free online course covering the topic of designing gearbox icons as a way to portray options, settings, etc.

    Any ideas what people used for settings before the gears?

    Just updated my answer to answer your additional question with some evidence to support my assertion.

    I already +1'ed your answer, and thanks for all the extra information that you provided. I'll wait for the bounty to end but I imagine it would be hard to top your answer :)

    First Control Panel was 1982, on the Lisa. And the Lisa was the first graphical user interface computer, not the Mac, which was released in 1984.

    You are indeed correct, but my point was that the Mac brought it to the mainstream. In just over 3.5 years, only 100,000 Apple Lisa computers were sold, while the Mac sold 50,000 units in 74 days and brought GUIs and a number of other things (e.g. the mouse) to the mainstream. However, the Lisa was ahead of its time in many ways - it had features such as protected memory which the Mac basically didn't get until 20yrs later! The problem of course was that it was just too darn expensive to ever make it to the mainstream. :(

    With Windows 95, the screwdriver is not conceptual, it was literal. In those days you often had to unscrew the computer case to get at switches that were on the motherboard or a daughterboard. You might have 3 virtual switches in the Control Panel and 3 real switches inside the box itself.

    Did either the Amiga or Atari ST have a concept of settings / control panel?

    AmigaOS (known as Workbench in earlier versions) had a Preferences window. In some ways this was similar to Mac OS 1 in that it was a single window/application that contained various settings within it. Atari ST with its GEM based TOS had a window labelled Control Panels that provided access to a small number of settings. This is actually closer to what we're used to now. Both AmigaOS and TOS were launched in 1985, with AmigaOS about 16 months and TOS about 21 months after Mac OS 1. Neither used a cog or gears/wrench as icons.

    awesome answer. Helped out a lot.

    Minor improvement requestion: Until version 8 the operating system for Macintoshes was just "System Software", so "System Software 6". Before SSW 6 the Finder and System files had differing versions, so "Mac OS 1" should be "Finder x.y.z". Excellent work.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM