History of the Peace Symbol

The BBC has an informative article on the origins of the peace symbol, to celebrate its 50th anniversary:

Gerald Holtom, a designer and former World War II conscientious objector from West London, persuaded [Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War] that their aims would have greater impact if they were conveyed in a visual image. The “Ban the Bomb” symbol was born.

He considered using a Christian cross motif but, instead, settled on using letters from the semaphore – or flag-signalling – alphabet, super-imposing N (uclear) on D (isarmament) and placing them within a circle symbolising Earth.

The sign was quickly adopted by [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament].

Holtom later explained that the design was “to mean a human being in despair” with arms outstretched downwards.

Not immediately obvious to me. I always wondered if there was a connection to chickens or birds. The dove?

American pacifist Ken Kolsbun, who corresponded with Mr Holtom until his death in 1985, says the designer came to regret the connotation of despair and had wanted the sign inverted.

“He thought peace was something that should be celebrated,” says Mr Kolsbun, who has spent decades documenting the use of the sign. “In fact, the semaphore sign for U in ‘unilateral’ depicts flags pointing upwards. Mr Holtom was all for unilateral disarmament.”

I would say celebrating is good, unless it’s premature and increases the risks of failure. President Bush, however, seems to have made a career out of prematurely celebrating and re-branding failures as his grand success.

Most interesting to me is how the symbol interpretations have grown so rapidly and widely over a short period of time, despite the origins being known and well documented. Anti-nuclear groups did not register it and instead allowed it to be used for free, for freedom. According to the article South Africa tried to ban its use due to its role in the anti-apartheid movement, and right-wing extremists in America claimed that the symbol had communist and satanic origins.

All of this is just food for thought as I work with teams to find root-cause of information technology issues. Settling with an assumption, or celebrating early, are hazards to be avoided.

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