Home » Why The Oil Warning Light Looks Like It Should Release A Genie

Why The Oil Warning Light Looks Like It Should Release A Genie

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You know how graphic designers and people in the human-machine interface world like to bitch about skeuomorphism and point out that the standard save icon used in lots of applications, a 3.5″ floppy disk, is something that is becoming unknown to many, many people? They have a point –floppy disks like that have been obsolete for over 20 years now. Why do we still expect people to know what the hell that thing is? Well, in the automotive world, there’s a very similar phenomenon, one that, really, is even more obsolete and unfamiliar than a floppy disk to a 19-year old. It’s the oil pressure warning light symbol. Have you ever used an object that looks like that symbol to add oil to your car? Have you ever seen anything that even resembles that outside of a cartoon where someone rubs it and a genie in a turban pops out, ready to deliver a trio of wishes?

I mean, take a look at the oil pressure light symbol:

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Oillight On

It sure as hell looks like one of these, doesn’t it?

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It looks like an oil lamp, of a strikingly ancient design. Oil lamps have existed in some form or another for over 10,000 years, with simple fat-fueled lamps found in the caves at Lascaux. Oil lamps with a basic design that resembles the oil pressure icon – long and low, with a loop handle and a long spout – have existed since Roman times:

Romanlamp

Of course, this is all kind of a fortunate coincidence – yes, the icon absolutely does resemble an oil lamp, and it would be kind of a whimsical oil-association, if that’s why the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards picked it to refer to oil-related things. But they didn’t. Let’s take a look at FMVSS 101 and the oil icon again:

Fmvss101 Oil

So, if it’s not an oil lamp, what is this supposed to be, exactly? It’s supposed to be something that, while it does make sense for oil, is also probably less identifiable to most people than the centuries-old oil lamp it’s often mistaken for. It’s supposed to be one of these:

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Oiler Icon

That’s an old-style oiling can, a type that was most common in the early 20th century. I’ve included the icon again there, so you can see resemblance: the long spout, the little thumb-pump button on top, the loop handle. These types of oil cans really haven’t been common since, say, the 1950s or so. There’s plenty of oil can designs in use today, but they don’t look like this anymore; they look like these:

Othercans

So, much in the same way as the floppy disk save icon, the concept of “engine oil” is represented by a device that almost nobody driving today has had direct contact with. People haven’t used oil cans like portrayed in that icon to add engine oil in ages. If you showed an actual one to an average driver today, they might think it was a small teapot, or something.

And yet, somehow, this icon is still associated with oil. There’s a few reasons for this, not the least of which is just simple association over time, but I think the oil pressure light owes its continued longevity to a happy and improbable coincidence, the visual similarities to the ancient oil lamp. Really, it’s pretty remarkable when you think about it: the woefully outdated visual reference picked by some out-of-touch government designers working for the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in the 1970s (the original draft of FMVSS 101 was in February of 1967, but the icons were not standardized until a later update) just so happened to resemble an entirely separate and unrelated oil-based device, the oil lamp, that, while vastly more ancient than the oil can, has been so enshrined in cultures and folklore all over the world that it became a far more recognizable, oil-associated object.

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This is just luck! Incredible luck! What are the odds that something from folklore about djinns would look like an obsolete mechanic’s tool, and would be filled with the same important substance that the symbol is meant to represent?

I love this, because even if everyone who sees that icon and assumes it’s a genie’s lamp, that’s just fine, because it means oil, too. It works just as well. Compare that to the defroster icons that look like snakes crawling onto a hand fan and I think you’ll appreciate the glorious improbability of it all.

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Phil Layshio
Phil Layshio
1 year ago

Pretty sure anyone who’s ever seen ‘The Wizard of Oz’ knows what an oil can is.

Steve Walton
Steve Walton
1 year ago

Doesn’t everybody own one of those oiler cans? They are for running around putting oil in the pots above sheave and gear bearings in machinery installations. To be an oiler was to be in constant jeopardy, as all you had to do is slip and the gears would mincemeat you.

One of their cousins is a measuring/dispensing can for motor oil, used by gas stations that bought their oil in 55 gallon drums. I have both kinds, and still use them.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
1 year ago

Genies and oil both come from the middle East. It makes sense that they are both kept in the same type of container.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
1 year ago

Also a lot of fun in the ventilation system:

In my Citroën GS, there was a slider from “man with top hat” to “shoe” (symbols)

In my Figaro I can choose between Def, Feet and Face (letters)

In my 356 it’s just arrows. So german and serious…

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 year ago

While I grok the symbol as an oil can to me it looks more like the pitchers used for filling radiators in the early 70s.

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
1 year ago

The skeuomorph that still bugs me is the funnel used to denote a filter! A funnel absolutely does NOT reduce the amount of stuff getting through (a filter does). All it does is slow it down to get through the smaller hole. Arrrgggh!

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 year ago
Reply to  Knowonelse

Funnels are often used as filters, an excellent example is cone style drip coffee maker like a Chemex or pour over so it’s not that far fetched

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
1 year ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

The funnel is used to -hold- the actual filter in that case, it isn’t the filter itself.

Harris K Telemacher
Harris K Telemacher
1 year ago
Reply to  Knowonelse

Actually, a funnel is exactly what a filter is. If I put gravel and sand into the top of a funnel, the sand will be able to pass through the funnel if the hole at the bottom is big enough, but the gravel would be prevented from going through if the hole is smaller than the gravel. Air filters or oil filters do exactly the same thing. Air or oil can pass through the small openings in the material, but larger particles are prevented from passing through. So a funnel icon is actually perfectly reasonable.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
1 year ago

Any hole can be a filter (that doesn’t sound right). For example, I can walk through my front door, an elephant cannot.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 year ago
Reply to  Thomas Metcalf

That elephant just isn’t motivated enough.

Harris K Telemacher
Harris K Telemacher
1 year ago
Reply to  Thomas Metcalf

Sounds like you need to do some house remodeling if you can’t even fit a simple elephant through your front door. You just going to leave that elephant outside in the elements?! Do you hate all animals equally, or just elephants? /sarcasm

Ben
Ben
1 year ago

I distinctly remember reading a book when I was little with this exact scenario.

Oh hey, I actually found it! It’s called “But No Elephants” by Jerry Smath.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 year ago

That’s not really the purpose of a funnel, though. In that case you’re using a funnel as a filter. A specialized case.

Last edited 1 year ago by Rad Barchetta
Harris K Telemacher
Harris K Telemacher
1 year ago
Reply to  Rad Barchetta

Po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to, I guess. I would still argue that they are one and the same, regardless how they’re used by people. “Filter” and “funnel” are just two words that describe the same action, in my opinion. If you look at the material of a filter, let’s say paper, there are small gaps through which particles of a certain size or smaller can flow. Each of those gaps are essentially a tiny funnel. If I throw 1000 small-enough, identically-sized particles of something at that gap, only 1 particle can flow through at any given moment. Larger particles will be unable to flow through the gap. If I have a large surface covered in thousands of funnels and I dump sand and gravel onto that surface, the funnels are performing the exact same task as the much smaller scale “filter”. I know people typically USE funnels as a way to pour and channel stuff into smaller openings, but funnels are also filters, and can be used in that way, as you said.
Obviously the people who chose the icons in the FMVSS that Jason mentions felt the same about the funnel as a filter. Not trying to argue with you, or anyone else, honestly. I just see a funnel and filter as two sides of the same coin.

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
1 year ago

However a filter can never be considered a funnel as it always leaves the larger pieces behind and it is the express intent of a filter. A funnel -can- be used as a filter, but it is not the express intent of a funnel as it serves to narrow the exit of the material not filter it. Fun times, no!?

Carter Young
Carter Young
1 year ago

I also like the interpretation of the coolant warning symbol: “the sailboat light in the car dash is on.”

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
1 year ago
Reply to  Carter Young

Yes! My wife asked me about the sailboat light in her car that comes on every morning…I had no idea. At least it wasn’t the bow pointing down symbol(tpms).

ScottyB
ScottyB
1 year ago

I’ll never unsee the genie lamp on the dashboard now, but that’s a good thing.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
1 year ago

Actual story regarding a very sweet older customer that relates to this:

“I looked under the cap that had the watering can symbol and saw there wasn’t any water in it. So I filled it up, now it’s not running, not sure what the problem is..”

…it was the oil cap and it ONLY had the symbol above, didn’t specify the words “oil” or 10w/5w whatever on it. She filled up the entire motor with water from her garden hose through the oil filler cap.

We felt bad for the customer and did try as much as we could to make the engine replacement as reasonable as possible. It was either a late 80s early 90s ford escort, if memory serves me well.

Dale Mitchell
Dale Mitchell
1 year ago

Print the word ‘OIL’ on the cap, someone will think it says ‘710’..

Speaking as a professional in the industrial controls world, Human Machine Interface is almost completely without standards. There has been some movement towards using both words and symbols however (High performance HMI).

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
1 year ago

I am an “old” I saw those oil cans in my youth and knew what they were, I also am old enough to remember cassette tapes as computer storage.

Ffoc01
Ffoc01
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

Just think about the kids going to make a phone call, clicking on the phone icon, having no idea what a phone “handset” actually is.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
1 year ago
Reply to  Ffoc01

clearly those handset icons are styled after dodge sedans and SUV taillights. It means “end call and just drive”. (kidding, I grew up with a rotary phone)

ES
ES
1 year ago

huh, i never made an explicit inference between the icon and oil lamps, but in reflection, i’ve never seen an oiling can that shape before either. i’ve ever only used the inverted martini glass shape.

reading your first couple paragraphs i thought, duh, everyone knows the “classic” shape because of the Wizard of Oz, but looking at stills, the WoO prop oiling can was similar to your third example of a modern oiling can. it apparently also just auctioned for a quarter-million.

Paul B
Paul B
1 year ago

When you rub the lamp, a genie comes and grant 3 wishes for your mechanic.

Ecsta C3PO
Ecsta C3PO
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul B

Weirdly, VAG mechanics seem to get the lions share of wishes

Paul Brogger
Paul Brogger
1 year ago

My niece famously reported the “teapot light” had been on for the past two weeks while she was driving her boyfriend’s BMW.
(Of course, the larger question was: what’s going on that he’s loaning her a BMW?!?!)

Chris D
Chris D
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Brogger

Come on, we ALL know what’s going on that makes him willing to let her drive his BMW.

Lokki
Lokki
1 year ago

Skeuomorph” – I learned a new word today; thank you! I always wondered what the scientific name for a dildo was…

But seriously… what symbol could you use to replace the “oil lamp” symbol? All I can think of would be a little oil tower with oil spurting out the top.

https://vecta.io/symbols/257/oil-rigs/1/oil-rig-icon

Which kind of brings us full circle …

Ffoc01
Ffoc01
1 year ago
Reply to  Lokki

But when was the last time you’re ever seen an above ground oil rig, gushing oil? Same thing. You’d almost be better off using a shillouette of a modern, plastic oil quart container, tilted at a 45 deg angle with an exaggerated oil drop from the top.

Amberturnsignalsarebetter
Amberturnsignalsarebetter
1 year ago
Reply to  Lokki

I assume you mean the exploding lighthouse icon?

Nic Periton
Nic Periton
1 year ago

I still use oil cans that look just like that, people give them to me regularly. Ironically, none of the vehicles I use them on has any sort of warning lights at all.

Groover
Groover
1 year ago

MISTER OILADDIN SIR WHAT WILL YOUR PRESSURE BE?

Taco Shackleford
Taco Shackleford
1 year ago

It’s always reminded me of the oil can in Wizard of Oz, but that’s probably because that oil can was likely my first time seeing a can like that. Looking at it again its a different orientation with the nozzle pointing up in the movie, but its close enough for my childhood memory.

B P
B P
1 year ago

But aren’t those old oil cans used for applying lubricating oil to joints etc, not for adding motor oil to an engine? So even if they used to be common, they were never used for this actual application… I dunno.

A. Barth
A. Barth
1 year ago
Reply to  B P

You are correct: before zerk fittings [for grease], there were little pots that held oil to feed e.g. a bearing in an electric motor; the pump-type devices were used to add oil to those fittings.

The other kind, described by ES here as the “inverted martini glass”, had a flexible base. You picked it up, inverted it, and used your thumb to press the base in to force a small amount of oil out of the nozzle. They make a delightful “koink-koink” sound when operated (one koink when pressed, one when released).

I picked up two small versions of the koink-koink type, but they will not be used for oil. The intention – once I wash out the remaining oil – is to fill them from an aerosol can of PB Blaster. Then, instead of spraying PBB everywhere under pressure, I can apply the penetrant in a targeted fashion and get it where it needs to be with minimal waste and mess.

The PBB of course has a much lower viscosity than oil, but that’s okay: I should be able to crimp the metal koink-koink nozzle gently to throttle the output if necessary.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 year ago

Could’ve been worse; they could’ve chosen dinosaur.

Chris with bad opinions
Chris with bad opinions
1 year ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

I don’t know, I kind of like your dinosaur idea better. Have a T-Rex for gas and a Triceratops for oil and when your engine is ready to blow a meteor.

A. Barth
A. Barth
1 year ago

when your engine is ready to blow a meteor

CEL = Catastrophic Extinction Light

Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson
1 year ago

Here’s one I don’t get: Why is the horn a bugle, instead of a bike horn with a squeeze bulb on the end? I’ve only ever seen squeeze horns on antique cars.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 year ago

Too phallic for conservatives, probably.

Jonathan Hendry
Jonathan Hendry
1 year ago

I choose to believe that the oil lamp looks like an oil lamp.

JerryLH3
JerryLH3
1 year ago

Speaking of 3.5″ floppy disks, recently I had to explain to a younger coworker that there were even older, actual floppy disks before the 3.5″ became ubiquitous.

Robert M. Graham
Robert M. Graham
1 year ago
Reply to  JerryLH3

I was around with the 8″ floppy disks used by a dedicated “word processor”!

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
1 year ago
Reply to  JerryLH3

My TRS-80 Model 3 had (2) 5 1/4 floppy disk drives

ES
ES
1 year ago

and the TI-99 that used cassette recorder as an external drive (maybe they had an external floppy disk drive for rich people?)

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 year ago
Reply to  ES

(maybe they had an external floppy disk drive for rich people?)

They did. I was not rich enough for one.

My experience with the Ti is what turned me off to programming. My dad bought me a Ti because it was the cheapest PC at the time and he had dreams of me becoming a programmer. Little did he know that within a year those Ti994a PCs would be selling for $45 with a $50 MIR effectively PAYING you to take them away!

The Ti came with a booklet containing some BASIC programs. Most were boring stuff I couldn’t see the point of wasting time on.. The only one that seemed even remotely intersting was a virtual slot machine. I spent all afternoon typing and debugging that program; it was fun for maybe 3 minutes then I lost it because at the time I had no way to save it. My fingers hurt from typing all day, I had a pounding headache (drink more water 13 YO me!) and only after I had finished did I realize once I pulled the plug all my work was gone.

Poof!

I got a cassette recorder soon after and quickly discovered it took FOREVER to save or load even the simplest program. Unless the cassette was new (tapes were expensive to 13 yo me) there was good chance of losing another afternoon’s work to a faulty tape. Now I hated programming even more.

Later my family got a Mac+ with a 3.5″ floppy. That thing was a marvel! The best part? It came with its own software so I didn’t have to spend days transcribing BASIC computer gibberish only to lose it all when the computer was shut off! Sure you had to load every program off the floppies every single time you wanted to use it (the cheapest HD was like $550 in 1984 dollars) but even just the Mac with the floppy was SO MUCH BETTER than the damned Ti. There was so much software available for the Mac I’d never need bother programming again!

Mark
Mark
1 year ago

C-64 only had a single 5.25″ drive. Still have a couple dozen discs around somewhere, my mom has most of them but I’ve got a box of Verbatim 2S/2D 5.25″. Held a whopping 1200 KB each.

The VIC-20 only had a tape drive before that.

And earlier this month I bought an 8TB hd for $130… That’s what, 8 billion 5.25 discs worth? 8 million? Big numbers cheap.

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark

OK, I couldn’t resist doing the math. The most common capacity of the 5¼-inch format in DOS-based PCs was 360 KB, so 8TB would be 22,222,222 discs. I grew up with a VIC-20 with a tape drive!

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 year ago

My TRS-80 used cassette tapes.

Chris D
Chris D
1 year ago

Jeez, I learned how to program BASIC on the original 4K TRS-80, after school at the Radio Shack… I guess I really am kind of getting old…

Scruffinater
Scruffinater
1 year ago
Reply to  JerryLH3

Hey now, the 3.5″s are still actual floppy discs, just in a stiff case… unlike the 5.25″s which were floppy discs in an also floppy case 😉

Now zip drives on the other hand….

Last edited 1 year ago by Scruffinater
Paul Brogger
Paul Brogger
1 year ago
Reply to  JerryLH3

A friend, working as reference librarian, reported kids asking her: “We’ve heard Paul McCartney played in a group before ‘Wings’ — can you tell us the name of that earlier band?”

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul Brogger
Erik Hancock
Erik Hancock
1 year ago
Reply to  JerryLH3

I recently heard a younger colleague refer to that time period as “the late 1900s” – as in “late 1900s technology.” While grammatically correct, it felt like a hate crime.

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
1 year ago
Reply to  JerryLH3

I still have them at work, use them as beverage coasters on my desk.

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