Visualizing Cleverness
June 18, 2017 8:13 AM   Subscribe

A light bulb icon, floating in a thought bubble over someone's head, is now a nearly-universal graphic symbol of inventiveness & inspiration. Was there a similar visual icon, meant to represent good ideas, before the advent of the light bulb, and if so, what was it? Or was this sort of pictorial representation more or less invented with the light bulb?

I can find evidence of "light" as a metaphor for inspiration, going back further than the light bulb, as well as some work tracing the early use of the light bulb for this graphic purpose. But I'm not quite coming up with much for earlier graphic representations of cleverness...
posted by .kobayashi. to Grab Bag (4 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The story of Archimedes in the bathtub and the resulting announcement "Eureka!" predates the light bulb and represents cleverness and inspiration, though I'm guessing it was never used as an abstract signifiers like the light bulb.
posted by ejs at 8:41 AM on June 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've seen an exclamation point used instead of a light bulb, I think in some comics that slightly predated universal electric service (maybe "Archy and Mehitabel"?)
posted by Quietgal at 9:48 AM on June 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

In the iconography of art there are earlier representations of concepts like divine inspiration and holiness: things like halos and hovering doves, though I’m not enough of an art historian to know if there’s anything representing a generic good idea. I suspect that the specific form is related to the beginning of comics and sequential art where speech and thought occur in bubbles. Earlier cartoons, in places like Punch, put the dialog beneath the picture (much as New Yorker cartoons still do).
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:14 AM on June 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

This post links an animated film from 1919 with a paraffin lamp subtitled "LIGHT" representing a sudden realisation: about 8:15 here.
posted by lucidium at 1:36 PM on October 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

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