How the peace symbol came to be

I am always on the lookout for interesting pieces of historical trivia and how the famous peace symbol came into existence certainly qualifies. It turns out that it was created in 1958 by Gerald Holtom by superimposing the international semaphore alphabet signals for ‘N’ and ‘D’ so that the symbol represents ‘Nuclear Disarmament’.

On Good Friday 1958, thousands gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square to protest nuclear weapons. They were responding to a string of test blasts conducted by the United Kingdom, the third nation to join the nuclear club after the US and USSR.

For the next four days, the bravest among them marched to Aldermaston, a small village 50 miles west of London where British nuclear weapons were designed and stockpiled.

On the protesters’ signs and banners, a new symbol was making its first appearance. Gerald Holtom, a designer and a pacifist, had developed it specifically for the march just a few weeks prior. He believed that a symbol would make the message stronger.

He was right: The symbol was adopted soon after by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and went on to become one of the most widely recognized designs in history.

“It’s a minor masterpiece with major evocative power,” said design guru and cultural critic, Stephen Bayley, in an email. “It speaks very clearly of an era and a sensibility.

“It is, simply, a fine period piece: the ordinary thing done extraordinarily well.”

The symbol has a strong similarity to the Mercedes Benz emblem (that has resulted in some satire about how people mistakenly used one for the other) and I wonder if the car company ever considered suing for copyright infringement. Of course, this was in 1958 not long after the Nazis had been defeated in World War II and a German company’s efforts to suppress a peace symbol may not have been viewed as the wisest public relations move.


  1. consciousness razor says

    I think you dropped an important word here:

    Of course, this was in 1958 not long after the Nazis had been defeated in World War II and a German company’s efforts to suppress a peace symbol may [not] have been viewed as the wisest public relations move.

    I don’t think they could make a good case anyway. Holtom’s symbol looks similar to the Mercedes logo, at least if you don’t look very closely, but that’s not copying. Mercedes doesn’t have the rights to semaphores or abstract designs based on them, which as you said is how the design was actually made and why it was used to mean what it does. So it’s really not a case of somebody taking Mercedes’ work and copying it for some other purpose. They took some other stuff, which doesn’t belong to Mercedes, and made something else out of it which happens to be sort of like the Mercedes logo.

    Also, notice that the difference isn’t just the length of the vertical line (a radius or a diameter). For Mercedes, the circle is divided into three equal segments, 120 degrees each. The peace (AKA nuclear disarmament) symbol is apparently 90/135/135, with the 90 degree section at the bottom split into two 45s by the vertical line. Plus, the Mercedes logo is distinguished by the triangular wedges (or three-pointed star), perhaps also chrome finish and beveling and whatnot, not simple line segments.

    They shouldn’t be able to make a very broad or vague claim that applies to many different ways of carving up circles into a few sections, with few details beyond that. Because then the law would be doing something bad for us — it would mean people don’t have the right to make pie charts, abstract drawings of a cream pie, geometrical figures that involve circles and line segments, and so forth. That would concede way too much to their company, and it wouldn’t do us any good.

  2. fentex says

    As it’s not a copy they probably wouldn’t win a copyright complaint -- they could try a trademark suit (which only requires similarity), but it also would likely fail because the CND movement and Mercedes were not in competition, and trademark issues also require a likelihood of confusion -- no one would suffer any confusion over a car and a demand for nuclear disarmament -- unless Mercedes have some very radioactive secret plans for their vehicles.

  3. naturalcynic says

    Back in the day I saw a picture of Bertrand Russell at a march when several people were carrying the symbol and there was a caption that explained what it was. I wore one on my letter jacket with the symbol covering the “0”. The oh so funny right wingers adopted the same general shape except that it looked a little different. It was the outline of a B-52 with a caption “DROP IT”.

  4. Friendly says

    Now, Mano, why are you lying to us? Jack T. Chick clued us in in his “Bewitched” tract that this so-called “peace symbol” was an occult device representing an inverted cross with broken arms — Satan denying the power of Christ’s sacrifice! Next you’ll be telling us that Procter & Gamble’s unholy moon-and-stars logo had nothing whatever to do with devil worship!!

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