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Octothorpe (the # symbol)

Further links

E-mail by Vern Klukas
E-mail by Allen Schaaf

Explanation by Vern Klukas

Vern Klukas from Inkspot Type & Design (vern at inkspotco.com) found this page (april 2003) and gave me a different explanation of the word "octothorpe". Personally I have not encountered this symbol in cartography, but I am only familiar with cartography in central Europe...

This word was not made up to describe the pound symbol.

The word means "eight fields" and was given to the symbol due to its use in cartography to indicate "village".
The symbol # shows eight fields around a central square (the village)

Digging into the past

Subject: Re: OT: typographical name for the # symbol
From: Allen Schaaf <soundbyte "at" sound-by-design.com>
Date sent: Wed, 04 Jul 2001 23:58:36 -0700

At 12:48 AM 7/2/01, Roger Jones wrote:

>I am seeking the proper typographical name for the # symbol.

In proofreading, it is used as a symbol to insert space(s).

I tend to use pound (but in the sense of beat on) or hash most commonly when talking about the symbol. However I have been known to be wrong, and often am. Just ask any of the people who review my work. ;)

I've looked around and can't find any specific reference in my old books on typesetting (hot metal) that I have, but I did not do an exhaustive search.

And the story, as told by one ex-Bell Labs person, is in this archived e-mail:

From: carlsen@hotair.att.com (Ralph Carlsen)
Date: Tue, 28 Nov 1995 16:21:55 -0500
Subject: Octothorpe (The Answer)


The following explains where "octothorpe" really came from. I am sending this to you because, as you will see, there are very few people who could know this story. The reason I am writing at this time is because I volunteered for the AT&T Lay Off package after 34 years of service at Bell Labs so I may not be around much longer. During the past year I have enjoyed reading your news group, and I have used your archives a couple of times (once to get "octothorpe"). Your comments and notes on the postings suggest you and I would agree on lots of things related to our telecom industry.

Ralph Carlsen

The real source of the word «octothorpe»

First, where did the symbols * and # come from? In about 1961 when DTMF dials were still in development, two Bell Labs guys in data communications engineering (Link Rice and Jack Soderberg) toured the USA talking to people who were thinking about telephone access to computers. They asked about possible applications, and what symbols should be used on two keys that would be used exclusively for data applications. The primary result was that the symbols should be something available on all standard typewriter keyboards. The * and # were selected as a result of this study, and people did not expect to use those keys for voice services. The Bell System in those days did not look internationally to see if this was a good choice for foreign countries.

Then in the early 1960s Bell Labs developed the 101 ESS which was the first stored program controlled switching system (it was a PBX). One of the first installations was at the Mayo Clinic. This PBX had lots of modern features (Call Forwarding, Speed Calling, Directed Call Pickup, etc.), some of which were activated by using the # sign. A Bell Labs supervisor DON MACPHERSON went to the Mayo Clinic just before cut over to train the doctors and staff on how to use the new features on this state of the art switching system. During one of his lectures he felt the need to come up with a word to describe the # symbol. Don also liked to add humor to his work. His thought process which took place while at the Mayo Clinic doing lectures was as follows:

So Don Macpherson began using the term Octothorpe to describe the # symbol in his lectures. When he returned to Bell Labs in Holmdel NJ, he told us what he had done, and began using the term Octothorpe in memos and letters. The term was picked up by other Bell Labs people and used mostly for the fun of it. Some of the documents which used the term Octothorpe found their way to Bell Operating Companies and other public places. Over the years, Don and I have enjoyed seeing the term Octothorpe appear in documents from many different sources.

Don MacPherson retired about eight years ago [1987], and I will be retiring in about six weeks [1996].

Ralph Carlsen

These are, of course, my remembrances and are not any official statement of AT&T or the subsequent 3 companies.

[TELECOM Digest Editor's note: Thank you very much for sharing. This is indeed an interesting report. Do you think you could get Don MacPherson to join us here among the Digest readership? PAT]

[To top/bottom of page] Sources

Swiss publication Produktion+Print, Nr. 10, Oktober 1996. Definitions according to Duden / Wahrig / Langenscheidt.

[To top/bottom of page] Further links

Weird words: Octothorpe
What is the ####?
The secret life of the octothorpe
Another name for the telephone handset symbol #

The band Octothorpe


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