Obsolete Technology in Unicode

A short meander through some of the more obscure miscellany within Unicode. Languages hang around far longer than there are native speakers, and symbols get reused and repurposed (🍆). Here are some of the delightfully old-fashioned symbols hidden in your thoroughly modern smartphone.


Long before solid-state drives, we used to record data on long thin strips of magnetic tape.
🖭 📼
I'm sure there's a hipster somewhere who only listens to Kraftwerk on C90 cassettes, and claims that the image quality on Twin Peaks is superior on NTSC VHS tapes - but these have all-but died out now.

If you've ever watched an old episode of the original Star Trek, you'll be familiar with this, the Tape Drive:

I'll bet there's a 3D printed one you can hook up to the GPIO pins of your Raspberry Pi - but tape has bitten the dust. Much like...

Floppy Disks

One is an emoji, the others are mere symbols.
💾 🖫 🖪 🖬
Commonly used as a "save" icon, even though the iMac first killed off the disk drive in 1998.

You get white and black "hard shell" disks - more commonly known as 3½-inch disks. There's also a "soft shell" disk - which could be a 5¼-inch or the even older 8-inch.

CD and DVD

💿 📀

Not quite as obsolete as the magnetic tape - but not far off. 1F4BF is supposed to be a generic "optical disc" but is usually depicted as a CD. Just for fun, there's a separate Optical Disc Icon which is not an emoji:

I suppose we should be grateful that HD-DVD and LaserDisc didn't make the standard. Which brings us on to...


Some people charitably call this a disc-cartridge. But, no, the official name is MINIDISC. For those too young to remember, Sony's MiniDisc was a proprietary, and inconsequential foray into digital music delivery.

If you are that young, you may be blissfully unaware of these two pieces of technology:

Pager and Fax Machines

📟 📠 🖷

The pager was never really a consumer item in the UK - not the way it was in the USA.

The fax machine is sort of a Shibboleth for everything wrong with an organisation. If you want to be scathing, insinuate that their company still relies on fax machines.

Fax also retains the rare distinction of being one of the few Unicode symbols which is represented by a whole word.

We're getting more modern...


🕾 🕿 ☏ ☎
To most people, telephones aren't a handset which rest atop of a base with touch-tone buttons. Rotary dial is extinct. For extra archaic points, there's also a telephone perched atop a modem.


As for that receiver... There's FIVE of them!

📞 🕻 🕽 ✆ 🕼

An emoji receiver, two regular receivers in different direction, a symbol to say there's a phone nearby and, of course, a receiver with a page coming out of it. Back to bloody fax machines!

Finally, not quite obsolete yet, but there is a"clamshell" style flip-phone:


As a special bonus for making is this far through my digital spelunking, here's the symbol for "telephone recorder"

No... I don't know either...

Nothing is lost forever

Unicode is a repository for human communications. Some of the letters, languages, and scripts are going to die out. We still have Roman Numerals -Ⅷ - despite that empire crumbling hundreds of years ago.

The Kharosthi script vanished in the 6th century.
𐩔 𐩕 𐩖 𐩗 𐩘

But it is still there, in countless books, inscribed on coins, hewn into the living rock. And now preserved in Unicode.

Our toys and fads and emoji will fade away. This is not a cause for sadness, but rather joy. Joy that someone in millennia hence will be able to feel slightly closer to their ancestors by understanding our primitive pictorial language.

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14 thoughts on “Obsolete Technology in Unicode”

  1. mike says:

    Was it really common for people to keep their modem under their phone and that's why it merits a unicode character representing such? I remember external modems, but I don't remember them being under phones. If there's a unicode character for that, why not one for a phone receiver in an acoustic coupler? 😀

    People using Linux who can't see the Kharosthi script characters may want to look in repos for a package with damase on the name. In Fedora repos it's umph-2b-damase-fonts.

    1. rik says:

      "Was it really common for people to keep their modem under their phone"

      Yes. This stems from how they were originally implemented - they had a speaker and a microphone, and you sat the handset in it - speaker to microphone and microphone to speaker. The modem modulated data out of the computer into sounds, and played them into the microphone of the handset, and demodulated the data out of the sounds played back by the speaker in the handset back to the computer.

      1. mike says:

        It's only just occurred to me that what I've always referred to as an acoustic coupler is a modem. The acoustic coupler is just the bit of the modem that connects to the phone line. Don't think I've ever seen one in person, but I've watched Matthew Broderick use one to play global thermonuclear war. 😀 I guess if you're someone who was used to having a phone and acoustic coupler modem and that gets replaced by a modem that plugs in to the phone line directly, why not keep the phone where it is and tuck the new modem under it.

      2. Peter J. Holzer says:

        The modem in the icon clearly isn't an acoustic coupler style modem, though.
        I think putting the modem under the phone was just a space-saving measure. The modem had to be close to the phone (for cabling reasons), and it was big and flat, to putting the phone on top of it took less space on your desk than putting them side by side.

        By the mid-90's this didn't work any more since modems were now to small to balance a phone on them.

    2. Bruce says:

      Yes, you had to put the phone somewhere. The phones in this case were Bell 500 series phones that were all the same size. In the days of telecom monopolies the phone came with the modem and had a special connection to the modem to allow dialing. If your phone circuit only allowed pulse dialing then you would order the one with a dial on it. The modem part would be made large enough for the phone to sit comfortably on top.

  2. says:

    Not so long ago (just over a decade), my son had to get tested for late-language development. One of the tests involved them showing him flashcards of extremely simple black and white symbols and getting some sort of reaction out of him. He wasn’t talking, so there was a lot of miming and mimicking sounds.

    So, they showed him a bird, and he mimicked flapping his wings. The showed him a bed and he pretended to sleep. They showed him a ball and he found a ball out of the basket of toys in the corner.

    And then they showed him a phone. It was an icon of corded phone where the receiver was on top and the numbers were dialed. He stared at it, utterly confused. The tester tried to prompt him. “What sound does this make? What would you do with it?”

    Finally, I dug in my purse, found my cell phone, and had her ask the same questions, which he gamely answered. The tester laughed when she realized that he’d never seen a phone like this one, and had probably never seen a corded phone in use. She ended up throwing the card in the trash since she was pretty sure it would just confuse any other preschooler that walked in the door.

  3. Dan Appelquist says:

    Many of these don't seem to render in either Firefox or Safari on Mac…? Weird.

  4. Craig Heath says:

    I remember that sort of telephone recorder - they were small inductive coils that stuck to the back of the handset speaker with a sucker, and connected to a cassette recorder with a mini jack plug. They worked just-about adequately.

  5. John Cross says:

    I enjoyed reading this. In Microsoft word, there is a flowchart symbol that looks like a magnetic drum.

  6. mw says:

    This is not only a telephone recorder symbol and the history of this particular symbol should be seen in radio receivers.
    So back in the day when anything with speaker was expensive as hell, a typical "upgrade path" of a tube radio was to buy a vinyl disc player. This player came without amplifier and was connected to the radio using a "banana" jacks or a "DIN" connector. The icon, reminding a vinyl player, was used then not only in connectors, but also in switches: AM, FM, Middle, Phono - the last one.
    Later it was used in radios as a general purpose input, without a frequency filter needed for vinyl players. It sometimes was used in recorders too, or, generally, as I/O DIN connector for radios (I/O - when radio was receiving it was used to connect tape recorder to record the transmission).

  7. Nathan Myers says:

    Acoustic coupler modems were an artifact of the Bell Telephone monopoly and it ability to forbid connecting their wires to non-Bell equipment. Once they were broken up, and we could connect to the wires directly, nobody ever used an acoustic coupler again.

    Decades on, the fragments of Bell have been linking up again as regulatory capture and right-wing politics have neutered regulation of monopolistic practices. Now we have ATT and Verizon throwing their weight around.

  8. Peter J. Holzer says:

    Tapes aren't extinct. You wouldn't use one for backups at home, and probably not at an office either, but they are still very much used in data centers. The cartridges look a bit different than the icons, but someone who's used a TK50 in the 1980's would immediately recognise a modern LTO cartridge (which has about 100000 times more capacity).


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