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