RocketCat sez

Unlike us highly-evolved felines, you stupid semi-domesticated primates want to run in packs. You wanna join gangs, circles of common interest, social groups. And obviously political parties.

I'm talking about raw prehistoric in-the-bone tribalism here.

Back when a chipped flint ax was considered high-tech, belonging to a tribe was how you survived. And how do you belong? Divide the population into two categories: In My Tribe and In Another Tribe. Or: my wonderful extended family who help keep me from dying vs those evil bastards living over there who are eating all the food.

Identifying who was in your tribe was relatively easy when the tribe was small enough so you could just memorize all the members. And then there were other subtle clues like body odor and a common language. But things got more difficult when the tribes got too big. Memorization doesn't scale.

So symbols were used. As history advanced the symbols evolved into national flags and other tribal signals. Which was a good thing, since everything got more complicated with the invention of a third category: "Not my tribe but a temporary ally". Especially when other tribes would often change their status back and forth between "ally" and "evil ogre with horns who eat babies."

Tribalism has arguably become obsolete but it is still hard-coded in circuits of mankind's reptile brain. So with the rise of corporations they sought to control hapless consumers by using Branding. This is when they moved from the tactical of Marketing to the strategic of Branding. A corporation's brand was defined by a name, slogan, design, or symbol.

Ah, you were wondering when I would get to the point of this.

Back in the US during the 1960s (before many of you were born) it was common for TV advertisements to feature a corporation's brand and product with a polite suggestion that it was superior to products made by the generic "Brand X". In those innocent days it was considered rude to actually mention your competitor by name or brand. But that fell by the wayside as advertising swiftly went full tribal and did their best to demonize the enemy tribe, carefully explaining why CarCo brand automobiles were steaming piles of crap so you should instead buy our product.

But more relevant to our interest is the decreasing attention span of the target audience. As time went by corporations would lose too many customers who wouldn't stand still for a tediously long symbolic slogan like "Winston taste good like a cigarette should" and instead started to rely upon iconic symbols which could be identified in a fraction of a second. The hope was that customers would see the corporation logo as a tribal national flag, and become devoted consumers of the corporation products because they'd rather fight than switch.

A related phenonenon is how the burden of typing with that rediculously small smartphone keyboard turned "Too Long; Didn't Read" into "TL;DR", and the rise of emoticons and other tiny icons.

Once you understand branding, you will know why I went to the effort of crafting my Atomic Rocket spaceship-in-an-atom logo, and use it everywhere. It became the Atomic Rocket "brand", and the banner of people who like this website.

Even more: consider the Atomic Rocket Seal of Approval. Originally it was just a simple boring list on one of site's pages. But add the branding of the Seal of Approval logo, and it springs to life. There are a few websites here and there who proudly display the Seal of Approval, and any reader familiar with Atomic Rockets will instantly know that a website is part of their tribe upon spotting the Seal of Approval.

Some may question the utility of painting a graphic image of a flag or corporate logo on a spacecraft, when spacecraft will probably be identified by their radio automatic identification system. Such people are making the flawed assumption that spacecraft will always have a reliable supply of electrical power. It is really hard to run a radio transponder if the ship's power plant is down, or if you are approaching a decade-old space derelict. This is also a good use case for Spacer's Runic.

So symbols are a powerful tool in your toolbox of science fiction creation, take advantage of them.

A good source of free science-fictional icons for your novel, artwork, or games is Game Icons net. They are available under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) license.

Pitfalls of Color

Color seems to be an easy way of adding more dimensions to symbols. For instance, one could use the same symbol but in five different colors, giving you five symbols instead of one.

This is probably a bad idea.

The problem is that under adverse conditions, the color might not be capable of being distinguished. With the unhappy result of five different symbols that you cannot tell apart. Such condition include:

  • Emergency lighting is often monochrome instead of white. Chemiluminescence glow sticks commonly emit green light, radioluminescence tritium lights are also green, low-pressure sodium lamps give yellow light. And light designed to preserve night vision under emergency conditions is red. Any of these can make two different colors become indistinguishable. This was featured in the movie The Abyss. The diver at an absurd distance below sea level has his lamp implode. The only light left is his glow stick. Unfortunately the nuclear warhead he has to disarm uses color coded wires that all look alike in green light.

  • A person might suffer from impaired color vision. This is generally red-green color blindness, occasionally blue-yellow color blindness, and rarely total color blindness. There are ways to partially compensate for this. Red and Green are commonly used as opposites for people with normal color vision. For the most common color blindness (red-green) this is the worst combo, a better choice is Red and Blue or Yellow and Blue.

  • Alien species might have vision which can only see in the infrared band or something exotic like that. Not only can they not see color, they might not be able to distinguish the symbol from the cloth or other surface it is applied to.

Rob Davidoff suggested that such symbols be "double-keyed". In the US the road sign symbolizing "Stop" is red of color and has an octogon shape. Words and numbers can be used, but part of the advantage of using symbols is they are not language specific.

With respect to color, the Semotic Standard symbols might have a problem.

The symbol of the Third Imperium established by Cleon I (the first emperor) when the empire was proclaimed. Images show him standing before the original banner with a golden yellow sunburst against a black background, representing Capital’s type G star against dark space.

The original banner in the Imperial throne room is still black with a yellow sunburst. The Imperial Interstellar Scout Service uses a red sunburst; the Imperial Navy, yellow; the Imperial Army, black; the Imperial Marines, maroon.

In 247, the Eliyoh (a nonhuman minor race) joined the Imperium. To that race the symbology was unimpressive. The Eliyoh vision centered in the far infrared, which resulted in distinction between the official colors of black and yellow being impossible. So the Empress Porfiria declared that the symbol would have no official color.

From Imperial Sunburst entry of the Traveller Imperial Encyclopedia
Linguistic relativity and the color naming debate

Berlin and Kay also found that, in languages with fewer than the maximum eleven color categories, the colors followed a specific evolutionary pattern. This pattern is as follows:

  1. All languages contain terms for black and white.
  2. If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.
  3. If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).
  4. If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
  5. If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.
  6. If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.
  7. If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains terms for purple, pink, orange, and/or gray.

Astronomical Symbols

Astronomical Symbols
(the Sun)
Circle with dot in center
MercuryCrescent over circle over cross
VenusCircle over cross
Cross over circle. More popular in non-geocentric contexts
Cross inside circle. Globe with equator and a meridian.
MarsAngled arrow over circle
CeresCresent over cross
JupiterCrescent on horizontal bar of cross
SaturnCross above crescent
UranusVertical arrow over circle with dot
"H" from Herschel.
Two crescents on horizontal bar of cross, over circle
NeptuneCrescent over cross
"L+V" for Le Verrier.
Pluto"P+L" for Pluto and Percival Lowell
Circle over crescent over cross

Moskowitz Symbols were invented by Denis Moskowitz. The vast majority of smaller celestial bodies in the solar system do not have official symbols. Mr. Moskowitz decided to remedy that.

A gentleman by the name of Jeff Love figures that in astrology the various planets are symbols for aspects of a person's psychology. He analyzed the planetary symbols into common sub-symbols.

Planetary Sub-symbols
DotThe Self
CircleInteracting with the world. A conscious as opposed to a subconscious process.
CrescentReceiving/Emitting information or energy
ArrowMovement, creativity, aggressiveness, response
VerticalThe Active
HorizontalThe Passive
CrossBalance or fixation. Abscence means unfixed.

These sub-symbols are combined to form the planetary/psychological symbols

Planetary Sub-symbols
SolDot in circle
MercuryVertical upward crescent over circle over cross, attached to vertical
VenusCircle over cross, attached to vertical
EarthCross in circle (dot in center?)
Cross over circle, attached to vertical
MarsArrow on circle
CeresHorizontal crescent over cross, attached to vertical.
JupiterHorizontal crescent on cross, attached to horizontal
SaturnCross over horizontal crescent, attached to vertical
UranusArrow on circle, with dot
NeptuneVertical upward crescent (with arrows) over cross, attached to vertical
PlutoCircle over vertical upward crescent over cross, attached to vertical

For measuring equitorial longitude (right ascension) around the solar system plane of the ecliptic, a rough system can be made by dividing longitude into 30 degree segments named after the 12 signs of the zodiac.

Zodiac Longitude

For relative angular measure there are colorful archaic terms originating from astrology.

Angle Symbols
ConjunctionIn same sign
18°Vigintile360° / 20
30°Semi-sextile360° / 12
One sign apart
32.727°Undecile360° / 11
36°Decile360° / 10
40°Novile360° / 9
360° / 8
51.429°Septile360° / 7
60°Sextile360° / 6
Two signs apart
360° / 5
360° / 4
Three signs apart
102.857°Biseptile360° / 3.5
360° / (7/2)
Septile × 2
108°Tridecile360° / 3.333
360° / (10/3)
Decile × 3
120°Trine360° / 3
Four signs apart
360° / 2.647
90° + 45°
Square + Semisquare
144°Biquintile360° / 2.5
360° / 2.4
Five signs apart
154.286°Triseptile360° / 2.333
360° / (7/3)
Septile × 3
165°Quindecile360° / 2.182
Opposition - 15°
Undecile × 5
180°Opposition360° / 2
Six signs apart
Solar Jargon

(ed note: Each zodiac "sign" designates a 30° arc of right ascension. The 12 signs cover the entire 360°. In reality the constellations comprising the zodiac have a variable number of degrees they span. And one Earth month also covers 30°. The vertex of all the arcs is the center of the Sun)

"But you're going in the wrong direction. A.T. headquarters is in King sector, about five months from Belt City."

"Five months?"

Paulsen laughed this time; a free laugh. "Oh, that's orbital distance, not the time it would take to get there. It's a Beltish system of direction. We use Earth's orbital velocity as the standard of distance for an asteroid—the way you use a clock face as the standard of position for an airplane; or a globe of Earth for the standard of reference in a spaceship.

"For instance, in an airplane—the way it's going would be twelve o'clock. If somebody comes up on it at a ninety-degree on the right, say, above it, that would be three o'clock high. Tells a guy where to look.

"But that wouldn't do you any good in a spaceship. Which way's up? The way you're facing or the way you're going? And are you in an acceleration couch lying down, or a couch-chair like ours? But— well, you've got the 3-D Plan Position Indicator. It's a globe. You use it like a globe of Earth for your reference."

Paulsen pointed to the global PPI. The faint glow of orange grid reference lines made it look very much like a skeletonized globe of Earth. The navigation stars that the computer selected from the multitude of stars around them shown as bright yellow dots on the outside surface of the globe. In the center of the globe was one green spark that represented their own ship. Any outside object, Stan knew, would be represented by a red spot within the globe; or if it were a planet or other sizable object, it would intrude as a large red ball. The north-south axis of the globe was in line with the ship's axis; north the direction in which they were going, south the direction from which they were pushed.

"You're in a squadron, diving on the Earthies, and you want to tell the other ships which one you're taking. You use latitude—not many of them; about twenty, forty and sixty degrees of latitude. Then north and south is like in the scope here; north is the way you're going. East and west is a reference from where you're sitting—east is the right side of the scope from here. Then farside and nearside, meaning farside of the scope or near. So if the ship you're after is—well, I don't know how to describe it except to say 'north forty farside east.' That would mean ahead of my ship at an angle of about forty degrees on the far side of my PPI scope and on an east angle from me. Get it?"

"I think so."

"But an asteroid—well, A.T. is in a position that puts it in line with a spot on Earth's orbit that's five months Earth speed further along that orbit than Belt City. So they're five months apart." ( 5×30° = 150°)

"Then you just mean that's its relative position?"

"Yep. Wouldn't take more than two weeks to reach it in this crate. But now, if you want to say where an asteroid is in the Belt, not relative to you in distance, but just where it is, you use the zodiac sign. For instance, Belt City's just entered Taurus; and A.T. is in Libra. Distance is in months; position is in zodiacal sign. Right?"

"Sure. It's easy once you think about it. Makes sense."

"Then there's the other part, the sectors. They're named like a deck of cards—ace, king, queen, jack, ten. The Belt's not evenly spaced around its orbit, you know. It sort of divides up into five sectors, with a fair amount of fairly empty space between. So you've got the sectors to contend with too. Think you can manage?"

"I guess so. Distance, Earth orbit; position by zodiac. Sector's a card game: Is that what's immediate?" Stan asked happily.

From Phase Two by Walt and Leigh Richmond (1979)

International Code of Signals

The International Code of Signals. These are a set of international code signs and words that do not depend upon the two people communicating to share a language in common. They include multicolored flags, semaphore, blinking lights, Morse code, and radio. For instance, AJ means "I have had a serious nuclear accident and you should approach with caution" and EO means "I am unable to locate vessel/aircraft in distress because of poor visibility". Those signals can be understood even if the sender only speaks Mandarin Chinese and the receiver only speaks Czechoslovakian. Refer to the manual found here.

Of course flags don't work very well in space, but perhaps subsitutes could be adopted. Patterns of colored lights or something.

FlagICS Meaning as Single FlagMeaning when used with Numeric Complements
ICS Alpha.svg.png"I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed."Azimuth or bearing
ICS Bravo.svg.png"I am taking in or discharging or carrying dangerous goods." (Originally used by the Royal Navy specifically for military explosives.)
ICS Charlie.svg.png"Affirmative."Course in degrees magnetic
ICS Delta.svg.png"Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty."Date
ICS Echo.svg.png"I am altering my course to starboard."
ICS Foxtrot.svg.png"I am disabled; communicate with me."
ICS Golf.svg.png"I require a pilot."
By fishing vessels near fishing grounds: "I am hauling nets."
Longitude (The first 2 or 3 digits denote degrees; the last 2 denote minutes.)
ICS Hotel.svg.png"I have a pilot on board."
ICS India.svg.png"I am altering my course to port."
ICS Juliet.svg.png"I am on fire and have dangerous cargo on board: keep well clear of me."
"I am leaking dangerous cargo."
ICS Kilo.svg.png"I wish to communicate with you.""I wish to communicate with you by...":
1) Morse signaling by hand-flags or arms;
2) Loud hailer (megaphone);
3) Morse signaling lamp;
4) Sound signals.
ICS Lima.svg.pngIn harbour: "The ship is quarantined."
At sea: "You should stop your vessel instantly."
Latitude (The first 2 digits denote degrees; the last 2 denote minutes.)
ICS Mike.svg.png"My vessel is stopped and making no way through the water."
ICS November.svg.png"Negative."
ICS Oscar.svg.png"Man overboard." (often attached to the man overboard pole on boats).
With a sinister hoist, the semaphore flag.
ICS Papa.svg.pngThe Blue Peter.
In harbour: All persons should report on board as the vessel is about to proceed to sea.
At sea: It may be used by fishing vessels to mean: "My nets have come fast upon an obstruction."
ICS Quebec.svg.png"My vessel is 'healthy' and I request free pratique."
ICS Romeo.svg.png(No ICS meaning as a single flag)Distance (range) in nautical miles.
ICS Sierra.svg.png"I am operating astern propulsion."Speed (velocity) in knots
ICS Tango.svg.png"Keep clear of me; I am engaged in pair trawling."Local time. (The first 2 digits denote hours; the last 2 denote minutes.)
ICS Uniform.svg.png"You are running into danger."
ICS Victor.svg.png"I require assistance."Speed in kilometres per hour.
ICS Whiskey.svg.png"I require medical assistance."
ICS X-ray.svg.png"Stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals."
ICS Yankee.svg.png"I am dragging my anchor."
ICS Zulu.svg.png"I require a tug."
By fishing vessels near fishing grounds: "I am shooting nets."
Time (UTC). (The first 2 digits denote hours; the last 2 denote minutes.)
Nada zero
ICS Pennant Zero.svg.pngThis and following used as numbers to complement other signals.
Una one
ICS Pennant One.svg.png
Bisso two
ICS Pennant Two.svg.png
Terra three
ICS Pennant Three.svg.png
Karte four
ICS Pennant Four.svg.png
Panta five
ICS Pennant Five.svg.png
Soxi six
ICS Pennant Six.svg.png
Sette seven
ICS Pennant Seven.svg.png
Okto eight
ICS Pennant Eight.svg.png
Nove nine
ICS Pennant Niner.svg.png

Ship Hull Symbols

These are real-world symbols used on cargo ships. But [a] they are fascinating and [b] it should be easy enough for science fiction writers to adapt them for cargo starships in their novels adding a bit of fascinating background that will make their readers think "Oh, that is so cool! I like this novel."


Approaching the container ship in San Francisco Bay, the tugboat looks like a pit bull puppy chasing an eighteen-wheeler. When the vessels are an arm’s length apart, the ship’s mate throws down a line. Now leashed to the ship, the tug can push and pull it around the bay. Big ships can’t easily slow down or maneuver by themselves—they’re meant for going in a straight line.

Tugboat crews routinely encounter what few of us will ever see. They easily read a vessel’s size, shape, function, and features, while deciphering at a glance the mysterious numbers, letters, and symbols on a ship’s hull. To non-mariners, the markings look like hieroglyphs. For those in the know, they speak volumes about a particular ship and also about the shipping industry.

Oceangoing vessels carry over 80 percent of the world’s trade, with more than 90,000 merchant ships plying international waters. Tankers, bulk carriers, and container ships—the largest things on Earth that move—are by far the most important modes of transportation of our time. They convey billions of tonnes of goods every year, bringing us everything from cars to crude oil to containers jammed with fidget spinners.

Those who work in ports or on the water have a good view of the proceedings; tugs may have the best view of all. These photos get you closer to ships than most people will ever be.

“The sides of ships have their own sort of beauty,” says photographer David Webster Smith, who is also a San Francisco tugboat engineer. “As soon as I can, I get my camera out.”

Most ships have clues to their identity emblazoned on their stern, often in the same order: owner, name, port (or “flag”), and International Maritime Organization (IMO) number. American President Lines (APL) owns this ship, christened the Mexico City, and it sails under the flag of Singapore.

The owner, name, and flag may change over a ship’s lifespan, but the IMO number stays the same as mandated by an international maritime treaty. Like vehicle identification numbers, IMOs help thwart fraud. Do a web search on an IMO number and the ship’s full history pops up.

Curious about those yellow-green, fortune-cookie-shaped objects along the lines? They’re anti-rat devices, foiling rodent attempts to scrabble from dock to line to ship.

Why would a ship owned by a South Korean company (Hanjin) list its port as Panama?

More than 70 percent of the world’s commercial ships sail under what’s called a “flag of convenience.” This means that the ship is registered in a foreign country and sails under that country’s flag, usually to reduce operating costs, sidestep taxes, or avoid the stricter safety standards of the owner’s country.

By far the most popular flag of convenience is Panama, with Liberia and the Marshall Islands fast gaining ground. For these countries, the fees companies pay to fly their flags are a significant source of revenue.

There’s another thing about this ship worth mentioning. See the crew members up on deck, at the far left and right of the photo? They’re actually dummies dressed as mariners, meant to fool pirates into thinking someone is always on watch.

These marks, called load lines, show the maximum load a ship can carry.

Load lines owe much to a British member of Parliament named Samuel Plimsoll. Worried about the loss of ships and crew members due to overloading, he sponsored a bill in 1876 that made it mandatory to have marks on both sides of a ship. If a ship is overloaded, the marks disappear underwater. The original “Plimsoll line” was a circle with a horizontal line through it. The symbol spread around the world; additional marks were added over the years.

The letters on either side of the circle stand for the ship’s registration authority. AB is the American Bureau of Shipping, one of 12 members of the International Association of Classification Societies, which sets and maintains safety standards for more than 90 percent of the world’s cargo ships.

The marks and letters to the right of the circle indicate maximum loads under different climatic conditions. Salt water is denser than fresh, cold water denser than warm. Since water density affects ship buoyancy, different conditions call for different load lines.

W marks the maximum load in winter temperate seawater, S in summer temperate seawater, T in tropical seawater, F in fresh water, and TF in tropical fresh water, like that of the Amazon River.

This ship is equipped with what’s called a bulbous bow, a protrusion low on the bow. Contrary to its ungainly appearance, the bulb actually reduces drag, increasing speed and fuel efficiency.

The white symbol that looks like the numeral five without the top line alerts tugboats to the presence of the bulb, which under certain conditions may be entirely underwater. Tugs need to be aware of the protuberance to avoid running it over as they maneuver around the ship, possibly damaging both the bulb and the tug.

The white circle with an X inside signals the presence of a bow thruster, a propulsion device that helps the boat maneuver sideways, a boon for getting on and off docks.

The numbers arranged in a vertical line—called draft marks—measure the distance between the bottom of the hull (the keel) and the waterline. If the water comes up to the 10-meter line, for example, that means 10 meters of the ship is underwater.

Where the water hits the draft lines tells sailors if the ship is overloaded, and—when compared to the reading on the opposite side of the boat—if it’s listing to one side.

To the left of the draft lines are different versions of the bulbous bow and bow thruster symbols. BT|FP tells you the position of the bow thruster: between the ballast tank (BT) and the forepeak (FP), the forwardmost part of the ship. It’s important for a tugboat operator to know the location of the bow thruster, as it creates turbulence that the tug would rather avoid.

Two tugboats approach an oil tanker near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. This photo is taken from a third tug that’s moving in on the ship, guided by white arrows pointing to “chocks” that house small but strong posts called “bitts.” The tug fastens lines to these bitts.

SWL 50t means that the safe working load for each bitt is 50 tonnes. Once the tug has fastened a line to the bitt, it will exert no more than 50 tonnes of pulling pressure as it helps the ship brake or negotiate docking.

Are these bird cubbies, rusting in the sea air? Not quite. The cavities are, however, known as pigeonholes. They’re part of an in-hull ladder that allows mariners to climb up the side of a barge. Unlike cargo ships, flat-bottom barges are not self-propelled. They’re usually towed or pushed by tugboats, though in the early days they were hauled up rivers and canals by horses, mules, or donkeys on an adjacent towpath. Though barges are often unstaffed, they occasionally must be boarded, for instance when a line needs to be thrown down to a dockworker. Pigeonholes give the boarders a leg up.

A ship’s paint job isn’t primarily about aesthetics or branding. When you see this two-toned effect, the paint closer to the waterline is often of a different chemical composition, one that holds up better to immersion. Even more than preventing corrosion, a hull coating that may be underwater has to guard against the slime, algae, and barnacles that cling fast to a friendly hull.

What’s so bad about shellfish and microorganisms hitching a ride? The crusting of barnacles, mussels, and bacteria—called biofouling—creates drag, slowing ships and upping their fuel intake by as much as 40 percent. Foreign species can also invade ecosystems and outcompete native species for food and space. To remove the hitchhikers, the ship goes into dry dock for scraping or power washing.

Enter preventive measures, like antifouling paint. Early iterations contained copper and even arsenic, which effectively poisoned the organisms but also the water. Modern antifouling coatings are more eco-friendly, and there are always new systems being floated, such as creating a hull surface that mimics shark skin, since, unlike some whales, sharks don’t tend to harbor barnacles.

The white rectangle edged in yellow—a pilot boarding mark—tells the maritime pilot where to board the ship. Maritime pilots (also called harbor or bar pilots) are experts on the navigational hazards of their home harbor and crucial characters in the drama of maritime life.

The pilot catches a ride out to the ship on a boat about the size of a tug, scrambles up a ladder hanging off the clifflike side of the ship, and takes over for the captain just before the ship comes into port. The rope ladder may not yet be deployed when the pilot boat approaches a ship, so the boarding mark is an important guide.

The white marks on the red are battle scars, reminders of scuffles with docks, other vessels (mostly tugs), and the sides of canals.

A maritime pilot would board this ship using the two ladders pictured. First, he or she ascends the rope ladder, sometimes called a Jacob’s ladder, alluding to the biblical Jacob, who famously dreamed of a ladder connecting heaven and Earth. Partway up, the pilot sidesteps onto the relative security of the diagonal gangplank, called an accommodation ladder.

Sometimes the pilot makes do with just the rope ladder. According to IMO regulations, if the distance from water level to deck (which changes according to ship load and sea conditions) is more than nine meters, the ship must deploy an accommodation ladder in addition to the rope ladder. Nine meters or more is a long climb on a rope ladder, especially under difficult sea conditions.

Boarding and disembarking are probably the most dangerous parts of the job. Getting off the ship, pilots may let go of the ladder and use what’s called a manrope to help them onto the deck of the pilot boat. That way they’re less likely to be crushed between the pilot boat and ship.

Semotic Standard

Ron Cobb while working on the movie Alien in 1978, developed a set of graphic icons to be used in the interior of spacecraft. It was called the Semotic Standard for "all commercial trans-stellar and heavy element transport craft". They are surprisingly modern looking for graphics created almost forty years ago. They inspired similar icons in Duncan Jones's movie Moon.

The icons used symbolic colors:

  • RED : viable, sound, alive, alertness
  • WHITE/GREY : life supporting condition: pressure, temperature
  • BLACK : vacuum, death, hazard
  • YELLOW : harmful, active process: molecular (heat), atomic, chemical
  • BLUE : lowered thermal condition
  • GREEN : non-human biological substance, process (not used in standard)

Spacers Runic

Spacer's Runic is from Jovian Chronicles Spacer's Guide (which has other hard-science space travel details that are relevant to our interests).

In the world of Jovian Chronicles, Spacer's Runic is an ideogram based written language used as an emergency form of communication when speaking is not possible. It can come in handy if a spacecraft's radio (or power plant) is non-functional. It can also provide disturbing messages about what lurks inside the decades-old derelict you just stumbled over. If it seems to trying to tell you about large eggs, face-huggers, and Xenomorphs you are probably better off just turning around and getting the heck out of there.

The straight lined symbols can be drawn with all sorts of improvised tools and surfaces, and space suits carry vacuum rated marking pens specifically to write them. Morse code is considered to also be a part of Spacer's Runic.

Spacer's Runic is considered to be universal among spacers, understandable regardless of what language the spacers speak. This is much like the real-world International Code of Signals, which can be understood even if the sender only speaks Mandarin Chinese and the receiver only speaks Czechoslovakian.

A single straight line (the "orientation mark") is used to indicate the left side of the sentences, since otherwise the orientation of the message is ambiguous in the microgravity environment. The line should include at least two sentence rows, but most spacers draw the line to include all of them. If there is only one sentence, the orientation mark should extend above and below the sentence.

The runes are read left to right,top to bottom.

Each rune is drawn within an imaginary 3 × 3 grid of evenly sized squares. They are drawn with dots and straight lines. Dots are drawn in the center of a grid square or at an intersection. Lines are drawn from the side of one grid square to another, either from the intersection or the midpoint.

The reader should cut some slack to the writer, since the writer is probably trying to draw the runes under extreme stress during an emergency.

Sentences start at the orientation mark, with each rune added at the right edge of the sentence. A sentence should be on one row, or the "continue on next line" rune allows a sentence to be on several rows. It is not allowed to have more than one sentence on a row.

Runes should be spaced so there is from 3 to 6 grid square between them, it is allowed to space the digits in a number closer than 3.

There are thousands of runes, only a representative sample is shown here.

Snake Onna Stake

The symbol on the left is the Rod of Asclepius. It is the symbol of the medical profession and healthcare.

The symbol on the right is the Caduceus of Hermes. It is not the symbol of the medical profession and healthcare. It is actually the symbol of commerce and negotiation. If you grew up anywhere besides the United States you would know that.

It is not entirely clear how the mix-up happened, but apparently there was a role played by the Medical Department of the United States Army in 1902. The caduceus was used as emblem of peace borne by an envoy or ambassador with a message or peace or demand for surrender since about 168 BCE. A symbol of free passage, telling both sides in a conflict you better not kill me or your commanding officer will have your head on a platter. A symbol also carried by medics.

So since in the US civil war the caduceus was worn by hospital stewards to indicate their non-combatant status, and the caduceus looks like the Rod of Asclepius if you don't look too closely, it is easy for a person with no attention to detail to get the two symbols mixed up. Apparently that person was either Capt. Frederick P. Reynolds or Col. John R. van Hoff.

Rod of Asclepius

The Rod of Asclepius has one snake and never ever has wings. It is carried by the Greek god Asclepius, god of medical healing. The other aspects of healing are represented by Asclepius' five daughters. Asclepius in invoked in the orginal version of the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians.

The snake symbolizes the rejuvenation of healing, because it periodically sheds its skin. It also symbolizes the duality of the medical profession, since they deal in life and death. Also the duality of healing drugs and poisons, since all drugs are poisons and all poisons are drugs. Only the size of the dose determines which it is.

Some say the symbol arose from the standard medical treatment for Guinea worm disease, which you are free to do a web search for but I warn you it is quite disturbing.

Caduceus of Hermes

The Caduceus has two snakes and often wings.

The earliest known appearance of the Caduceus is on an Early Bronze Age libation cup depicting the Sumerian god Ningishzida, but it is best known for being carried by the Greek god Hermes and later by Hermes Trismegistus. The word comes from Greek κηρύκειον kērū́keion "herald's wand".

Originally it symbolized the various attributes of Hermes, but nowadays it usually symbolizes commerce and negotiation. The two snakes represent balanced exchange and reciprocity, which are always good things to have in those realms. It also symbolizes the printing press since Hermes was big on writing and eloquence.

Simplified it becomes the astrological symbol of the planet Mercury (Roman name for Hermes)

Discworld Mine Sign

Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels are satirical fantasy for thinking people. While they are comedy, many of the jokes require a bit of scientific knowledge on the part of the reader. Which explains why I find them so entertaining. My personal favorites are The Truth (the invention of the newspaper), Going Postal (post office vs the Victorian internet), and Raising Steam (the invention of the steam locomotive).

Anyway like many fantasy novels the Discworld has a race of dwarfs. They spend most of their time in cramped mines in very close quarters with other dwarfs. Things can get tense.

Much like spacers on a prolonged deep-space mission in a tiny hab module, actually. Or asteroid miners.

As a sort of social network to reduce tensions Discworld dwarves use something called "mine signs", a species of graffiti. I am wondering of the idea can be adapted to a rocketpunk universe. Imagine Banksy using Spacers Runic


     'And talking of shapes, do you know what this means? I spotted it in the mine, and a dwarf called Helmclever scrawled it in some spilt coffee, and you know what? I think he was only half aware that he'd done it.'
     Carrot picked up the notebook and regarded the sketch solemnly for a moment.
     'Mine sign, sir,' he said. 'It means "the Following Dark".'
     'And what does that mean?'
     'Er, that things are pretty bad down there, sir,' said Carrot earnestly. 'Oh dear.' He put the notebook down slowly, as if half afraid that it might explode.
     'Well, there has been a murder, captain,' Vimes pointed out.
     'Yes, Sir. But this might mean something worse, sir. Mine-sign is a very strange phenomenon.'
     'There was a sign like it over the door, only there was just one line and it was horizontal,' Vimes added.
     'Oh, that'd be the Long Dark rune, sir,' said Carrot dismissively. 'It's just the symbol for a mine. Nothing to worry about.'

     'What are these mine signs all about?' he said. 'That Helmclever sort of drew one at me. I saw one on the wall, too. And you drew one.
     "'The Following Dark",' said Carrot. 'Yes. It was scrawled all over the place.'
     'What does it mean?'
     'Dread, sir,' said Carrot earnestly. 'A warning of terrible things to come.'
     'Well, if one of those little sods so much as surfaces with one of those flame weapons in his hand that will be true. But you mean they scrawl it on walls?'
     Carrot nodded. 'You have to understand about a dwarf mine, sir. It's a kind of—'

     —emotional hothouse, was how Vimes understood it, although no dwarf would ever describe it that way. Humans would have gone insane living like that, cramped together, no real privacy, no real silence, seeing the same faces every day for years on end. And since there were a lot of pointy weapons around, it'd only be a matter of time before the ceilings dripped blood.
     Dwarfs didn't go mad. They stayed thoughtful and sombre and keen on their job. But they scrawled mine-sign.
     It was like an unofficial ballot, voting by graffiti, showing your views on what was going on. In the confines of a mine any problem was everyone's problem, stress leapt from dwarf to dwarf like lightning. The signs earthed it. They were an outlet, a release, a way of showing what you felt without challenging anyone (because of all the pointy weapons).
     The Following Dark: We await what follows with dread. Another translation might mean, in effect: Repent, ye sinners!

     'There's the Waiting Dark that's the dark that fills a new hole. The Closing Dark I don't know about that one, but there's an Opening Dark, too. The Breathing Dark, that's rare. The Calling Dark, very dangerous. The Speaking Dark, the Catching Dark. The Secret Dark, I've seen that. They're all fine. But the Following Dark is a very bad sign. I used to hear the older dwarfs talking about that. They said it could make lamps go out, and much worse things. When people start drawing that sign, things have got very bad.'
     'This is all very interesting, but-'
     'Everyone in the mine is as nervous as heck, sir. Stressed like wires. Angua said she could smell it, but so could I, sir. I grew up in a mine. When something is wrong, everyone catches it. On days like that, sir, my father used to stop all mining operations. You get too many accidents. Frankly, sir, the dwarfs are mad with worry. The Following Dark signs are everywhere. It's probably the miners they've hired since they came here. They feel that something is very wrong, but the only thing they can do about it is sign.'

     'Captain, I'm getting a bit lost here,' said Vimes. 'I didn't grow up in a mine. Are these signs drawn because dwarfs think bad things are going to happen and want to ward them off, or think the mine deserves the bad things happening, or because they want the bad things to happen?'
     'Can be all three at once,' said Carrot, wincing. 'It can get really intense when a mine goes bad.'

From THUD! by Terry Pratchett (2005)

Scientific Laws

Space Suit ID

Once people are suited up, it does become hard to tell who is who. In Destination Moon, there were four spacemen, and each had a uniquely colored suit. Kind of like colored tooth-brushes. But this won't work if you have more than a few spacemen, er, spacepeople. The person's name stenciled in large letter across the front and back is a possibility.

In Piers Anthony's The Kirlian Quest, he notes that this problem has occurred before: knights in armor are similarly anonymous. The solution is coat of arms and heraldry. The knights wear their coats of arms on their shields, tabards, and horse barding, to identify themselves.

When a proposed heraldic "device" (coat of arms) is submitted to the college of heralds, it is compared with all existing devices. The new device must have at least one major and one minor point of visual difference from those already registered. Otherwise it would be too easy to confuse the two devices in the heat of battle. Mistaking a foe for a friend could be fatal. It is also a good idea if the device can be recognized at a distance.

As an amusing side note, a heraldic device has a "blazon". This is a verbal description of the heraldic device done in heraldic terminology. If you give a herald a blazon, they can reproduce the original device even if they had never seen it before. Just remember that the "blazon" is the verbal description and "to emblazon" means to draw, paint or otherwise make a graphic representation of the device (called an "emblazonment").

Heraldry developed as a way to be seen and identified across a battlefield, in the clash of war. This requires high-contrast designs whose elements are clearly recognizable.

The first step in recognizability is to use the stylized heraldic forms of things. The second is to make your charges as big and bold as possible in the space you have available.

Modern corporate logos usually follow the same rules that heraldic artists used, because they want their product logo to stand out, to be identifiable even at a distance, and to be recognizable. Consider the logos of Shell, Diamond Shamrock, BMW, Dodge, Purina, CBS — all of these follow the styles and rules of heraldry.

In Larry Niven's Protector, the Belters of the asteroid belt spend most of their lives inside their space suit. They have a tendency to paint their suits in extravagant colors. One of the characters had Salvador Dali's Madonna of Port Lligat on the front of their suit. In an interesting psychological quirk, Belters also tend to be nudists when in a pressurized environment.

And if you find any illustrations of the game Warhammer 40,000, you will quickly see that the Space Marines are big fans of heraldry. Even though you can generally idenifty the bad Marines by the tentacles, weeping open sores, and other Marks of Chaos. Otherwise, if the opponents look like skeletons they are Necrons; if they are tall, skinny, and distainful they are Eldar; if they are green with tusks they are Orks; and if they look like Giger's Alien xenomorph on bad LSD and are eating everything they are Tyranids. They are all enemies, so the basic rule is if it does not look like a Space Marine, shoot it with your bolter.

Most Belters decorated their suits. Why not? The interior of his suit was the only place many a Belter could call home, and the one possession he had to keep in perfect condition. But even in the Belt, Nick Sohl's suit was unique.

On an orange background was the painting of a girl. She was short; her head barely reached Nick's neck ring. Her skin was a softly glowing green. Only her lovely back showed across the front of the suit. Her hair was streaming bonfire flames, flickering orange with touches of yellow and white, darkening into red-black smoke as it swept across the girl's left shoulder. She was nude. Her arms were wrapped around the suit's torso, her hands touching the air pac on its back; her legs embraced the suit's thighs, so that her heels touched the backs of the flexible metal knee joints. It was a very beautiful painting, so beautiful that it almost wasn't vulgar. A pity the suit's sanitary outlet wasn't somewhere else.

From PROTECTOR by Larry Niven. 1973

(ed note: In the Cluster novels, the quotation mark symbols denote which species-language is being used. " is for humans, * is for Asts (looks like a mass of coils), / is for Slashes (looks like a living disk harrow, shooting laser beams), and :: is for Quadpointers (looks like a slug with four chisles on its nose). The protagonist Herald the Healer is a Slash.)

Whorl twined to another section of his convolute residence, and Herald followed. Here in the living rock bordering a corkscrew chamber was emblazoned in relief a creature-sized Shield of Arms.

It was beautiful. The outer shield was in the shape of an ellipse set at an angle, representing Galaxy Andromeda, bordered inside by a wreath of intertwining serpents to designate Sphere Ast. Within that were the Family Arms of Precipice, resembling an ornate overhanging cliff. Herald moved his loops across it, savoring its aspects. It had superior form, texture, and color, and was, in its fashion, a genuine work of art. The King of Arms of Ast was certainly a master!

*What do you find?* The query was urgent.

/I find an excellent and flawless emblazon./

*Did you not say 'blazon' before?*

The tedious questions of amateurs! But Herald repressed his annoyance, for courtesy was vital to his profession.

/I did, Whorl. The 'blazon' of a Shield of Arms is the precise linguistic specification of its elements. To 'emblazon' is to render this description into physical actuality./

*I comprehend. The one is the description, the other is the carving. I feared for a moment there was something wrong with it.*

/No, your Achievement is quite in order. Azurine, a cliff of thirty-seven rocks and forty-two rills, alternately thirteen, twelve, thirteen, seven, eleven, twenty-three, pearline, all within a bordure of the Serpents Rampant./

Herald winced inwardly as he communicated, for the old-style heraldic term "rampant" was restricted to certain quadrupedal beasts of prey, standing erect on the left foot raising the right foot in stride, balancing with the left forefoot outthrust, the right raised to strike. It was technically impossible for a legless serpent to be "rampant." But the broadening of the system to include diverse Cluster cultures had forced the fudging of some terms. However, as he had informed Whorl, the local Colleges of Arms defined legitimacy. So he had to accept it, nonsensical as it was in derivation. Regardless, this remained an excellent Shield of Arms, in concept and execution.

In a moment she was back on the subject. ::How did heraldry start?::

/Many species, in their pretechnical phases, wore special apparel to protect them from the attacks of physical weapons. This apparel was called 'armor,' and it was so encompassing that it became impossible to recognize the individual entity within it, the 'knight,' which figure is also represented in the Tarot deck. Therefore it became necessary to decorate his shield with some characteristic design, typical of his household and affiliation, so that friend could be distinguished from enemy. This eliminated the awkwardness of a knight lining up behind the formation of his enemy, supposing he was among friends. Or even attacking his friends, thinking they were enemies. The markings on the shield made everything instantly clear, even when the knights were not personally known to each other. This was the origin of heraldry. Today, all great families of all species in the Cluster have their registered Shields of Arms, even though they may never engage in combat./

::My family has a Shield! I never knew what it meant.::

/Come, I will explain what it means./ Following her directions, Herald located the Metamorphic Shield and placed it against the wall where both could view it. /Note that the shape of this Shield is elliptical, a kind of angled oval that signifies Galaxy Andromeda./

::But Andromeda is a spiral!::

/So it is. But from Milky Way it appears elliptical. (Since Andromeda lost the Wars of Energy, we suffer the additional humiliation of the ellipse. The Milky Way Shield is the fundamental shape, flat across the top, round or partly pointed across the bottom. Other Galaxies have other shapes.) Within this is the band of prints, the little four-point patterns, signifying Sphere Quadpoint. In Milky Way there are two bands, since that Galaxy is organized into segments and Spheres, but it is the same idea. Then the main design, the symbol of Family Metamorphic: a lump of edible rock superimposed on the geologic flowchart of its derivation. A distinctive Achievement—that is what the complete affair is called—recognizable anywhere in the Cluster./

::Can you recognize any Shield of Arms in the whole Cluster?:: she asked, a bit awed.

/Within certain broad categories, yes. It is my business. And this is true generally. Two completely alien sapients could meet on a barren planetoid, perhaps shipwrecked from different vessels, possessing no common language, form or status, and they could recognize each other by their Shields of Arms. That would provide their common experience. Each would know the other was sapient and civilized, and where he was from, and that he honored Cluster conventions of behavior./

From KIRLIAN QUEST by Piers Anthony ()

The tiger stripes on Jim's mask, the war paint on Frank's, and a rainbow motif on Phyllis's made the young people easy to identify. The adults could be told apart only by size, shape, and manner; there were two extras, Doctor MacRae and Father Cleary.

He poked his head inside, seemed about to leave, then came inside. He pointed to their outdoor suits, hanging on hooks by the clothes locker. 'Why haven't you removed those barbaric decorations from your masks?'

The boys looked startled; Howe went on, 'Haven't you looked at the bulletin board this morning?'


1. The practice of painting respirator masks with so-called identification patterns will cease. Masks will be plain and each student will letter his name neatly in letters one inch high across the chest and across the shoulders of his outdoors suit.

(ed note: headmaster Howe is a stupid little power-mad bureaucrat who does not understand the realities of life out on the frontier)

From RED PLANET by Robert Heinlein. 1949


A Badge is a device or accessory, often containing the insignia of an organization. It is a simple means of identification, a symbol of authority, or an indication of a special accomplishment.

In a science fictional rocketpunk universe, they will generally be for members of the astromilitary, the civilian military, a trader with a megacorporation trading company, or a member of an independent free trader ship. There might be an additional symbol showing skill ratings, e.g., a person might have the badge of a crewperson of the free trader ship Solar Queen along with the cogwheel badge of an engineer.

And of course the police will have badges, whether they are for city, state, county, planet, federation, starport, space station, or whatever.

A common cliché in science fiction is the tell-tale sign of a spacer who is down on their luck. They will be wearing a worn out ship coverall zipper-suit, all the fabric faded except for the dark spot where the embroidered textile ship's badge used to be.

For cinematic purposes they will probably look like a flashy symbol, but in reality they will probably be more like an RFID chip or other electronic tag. Cinematic badges are usually worn on the sholder, on the left breast, or both. Sometimes there will also be a colored ribbon going down the leg and/or arm, but I digress.


Flandry stepped closer, studying them from the camouflage of a nonchalant grin. Cross-legged on a padded bench, all twenty had shaven heads and white robes like Warouw, the same tattooed mark on their brows. It was a gold circle with a cross beneath and an arrow slanting upward ( combination female and male symbol using planetary symbols of Venus and Mars ). The breast insignia varied—a cogwheel, a triode circuit diagram, an integral dx, conventionalized waves and grain sheafs and thunderbolts—the heraldry of a government which at least nominally emphasized technology.

From THE PLAGUE OF MASTERS by Poul Anderson (1965)

Most of his fellow travellers were Trade men. But few of them sported Company badges. The majority were drifters or Free Traders, men who either from faults of temperament or other reasons could not find a niche in the large parental organizations, but shipped out on one independent spacer or another, the bottom layer of the Trade world.

There were no strict caste lines in Trade, the divisions were not by rank but by employer. The large dining room at the port was open to every man wearing the tunic of active service. Most of the Companies maintained their own sections there, their employees paying with vouchers. But transients and newly assigned men who had not yet joined their ships drifted together among the tables by the door.

They had some minutes to look around them after dialing for meals. A short distance away a man wearing the lightning flash badge of a Com-tech was arising from the table. He left two companions still methodically chewing as he went off, his wide chest — that of a second or third generation Martian colonist — unmistakable, though his features were those of a Terran Oriental.

The two he left behind were both apprentices. One bore on his tunic the chart insignia of an astrogator-to-be and the other an engineer's cogwheel. It was the latter who caught and held Dane's gaze.

Where the two other shattered discoveries had been of an earlier day, this was not only of their own time but a type of craft they were able to recognize at once. Through some freak its disastrous ending had not been as bad as those which had telescoped the prospector and smashed the alien. While the new find lay on its side showing buckled and broken plates, it was not crushed.

"Survey!" Rip yelled almost before they were within hearing distance.

There was no reason to mistake the insignia on the battered nose — the crossed, tailed comets were as well known along the star trails as the jagged lightning swords of the Patrol.

From SARGASSO OF SPACE by Andre Norton (1955)

As Free Traders they had the advantage of being uniformly tunicked—with no Company badge to betray their ship or status. So that could well be the "Polestar" standing needle slim behind them—and not the notorious "Solar Queen." But each, as he passed through the inner lock, gave a hitch to his belt which brought the butt of his sleep rod closer to hand. Innocuous as that weapon was, in close quarters its effects, if only temporary, was to some purpose. And since they were prepared for trouble, they might have a slight edge over the Eysies in attack. ("Eysies" = employees of the I-S trading megacorporation)

An officer of the Patrol, the sun making an eye-blinding flash of his lightning sword breast badge, stood behind a loud speaker.

From PLAGUE SHIP by Andre Norton (1956)

Kartr studied him almost critically and then glanced down along the length of his own body. Their vlis hide boots and belts had survived without a scratch in spite of the rough life in the bush. And those blazing Comet badges were still gleaming on breast and helmet. Even if that Comet was modified by the crossed dart and leaf of a ranger (Patrol espatiers and wilderness operation specialists) it was the insignia of the Patrol. And he who wore it had authority to appear anywhere in the galaxy without question — in fact by rights the questions were his to ask.

From STAR RANGERS by Andre Norton, (1953)
Collected in STAR SOLDIERS (2001), currently a free eBook in the Baen free library.

The stranger was of Terran stock but somewhat shorter than the crewmen, wide of shoulder and long of arm, both of which were accented by the bulk of the fur upper garment that he had unsealed but not taken off. Underneath he wore a green tunic of a uniform with a badge on the breast consisting of two silver leaves springing from a single stem.

"Ranger Meshler, Dane Thorson, acting cargo master, Ali Kamil, assistant engineer." Medic Tau made the formal introduction and added an explanation for his crewmates. "Ranger Meshler is now in charge in this district." (Rangers police the wilderness)

From POSTMARKED THE STARS by Andre Norton (1969)

They were too far from the spy post for their features to be distinguished, but while they wore uniforms of a similar cut to those at the post, Charis had never seen these before. The black and silver of Patrol, the green-brown of Survey, the gray and red of the Medical service, the blue of Administration, the plain green of the Rangers, the maroon of Education — she could identify those at a glance. But these were a light yellow.

Standing well to one side of the screen, Charis triggered the sweep again. Moments later she had a pick-up to the south. However, what flashed on the screen this time was no armed space man but a very familiar standby pattern—the insignia of Survey surmounted by a small Embassy seal, signifying an alien contact mission manned by Survey personnel.

From ORDEAL IN OTHERWHERE by Andre Norton (1964)

And looking down at his captor in apprehension, he was aware even then of the different quality of this man. The patron wore the tunic of a crewman, lighter patches where the ship's badges should have been to show that he was not engaged. But, though his tunic was shabby, dirty, his magnetic boots scuffed and badly worn, he was not like the others now enjoying the pleasures of the Starfall.

Vye watched the officer in the black and silver of the Patrol, a black and silver modified with the small, green, eye badge of X-Tee (trained to liaison with extraterrestrials), with level and hostile gaze.

From STAR HUNTER by Andre Norton (1961)

The lizardoid was serving three booths along the wall, and doing it most efficiently; four hands were useful. There was a very drunk party of Regillians in the first. In the second something gray, large, and warty squatted. But in the third slumped a Terran, his head supported on one hand, with the elbow of that arm planted firmly on the table top. He had on the remains of a space officer's uniform which had not been cleaned for a long time. One insignia still clung by a few loose threads to his tunic collar, but there was no house or ship badge on the breast, only a dark splotch there to show he had sometime lost that mark of respectability.

Perhaps he would not have been my first choice. But the stained insignia on his collar was that of a pilot, and he was the only one I had sighted here.

From UNCHARTED STARS by Andre Norton (1969)

A ship’s officer looked out at them from his bridge station.

He had the star and sextant badge of a navigator.

The crispness of his uniform, the depth of focus, all told Skipper this was an AI.

Of course the name badge on its chest with a banking logo did too.

Secret Badges

Some symbols are used for identification, but are only displayed covertly. This is generally used to identify yourself to a single person as a member in good standing with an undercover organization. A spy, a member of the resistance, a super-secret law enforcement agency, a member of a crime family, that sort of thing.

A remotely related concept is an "unforgeable" method of identification, used by law enforcement. Examples include the celebrated "Lens" of E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series (which is not covert but is unforgeable), and the Big Dipper/Orion vanishing tattoo of the Lucky Starr series (which is covert but possibly forgeable ).

In Babylon 5: Crusade there is a character named Dureena Nafeel who is a member of the Thieves Guild.

In an episode whose name escapes me, Dureena is a member of a team infiltrating a space colony. She wants to contact the local branch of the Thieves Guild. Which is a problem because she doesn't know any of them. So she tells two other team members to pretend like they are having a fist-fight.

As the fight progresses, attracting the attention of the crowd, Durenna moves into a dark corner and briefly places a small glowing Thieves Guide badge on a pillar. Afterwards, the other team members (with black eyes) asks her what the heck is going on?

Dureena tells them that when a commotion occurs, member of the Thieves Guild are trained to look away from the commotion and see what is happening in the rest of the room. Which means only members of the Guild will see Dureena placing the symbol, everybody else will be focused on the fist-fight. As Dureena predicts the Guild saw her, and later contacts her. Problem solved.


(ed note: David Starr, Space Ranger, is a member of the Council of Science. He is investigating a series of deadly food poisonings, done by some evil villain trying to undermine the Solar Alliance. )

      (David Starr said) “Well, then, Mr. Forester, I want to know exactly what you and your companion ate just now.”
     “Sir!” The little manager stared at David, with eyes swelling out of their sockets. “Are you suggesting that something in the food caused this?”
     “I’m not making suggestions. I’m asking questions.”
     “You have no right to ask questions. Who are you? You are nobody. I demand that a doctor examine this poor man.”
     “Mr. Gaspere, this is Council of Science business.”

     David bared the inner surface of his wrist, curling the flexible Metallite sleeve above it. For a moment it was merely exposed skin, and then an oval spot darkened and turned black. Within it little yellow grains of light danced and flickered in the familiar patterns of the Big Dipper and of Orion.

     The manager’s lips trembled. The Council of Science was not an official government agency, but its members were nearly above the government.

From DAVID STARR: SPACE RANGER by Isaac Asimov (1952)

           The fat man sat down. His hands rested upon the table. One wrist was exposed, slightly shaded by the palm of the other. For an instant, an oval spot on it darkened and turned black. Within it little yellow grains of light danced and flickered in the familiar patterns of the Big Dipper and of Orion. Then it disappeared, and there was only an innocent plump wrist and the smiling, round face of the fat man above it.
     That identifying mark of the Council of Science could be neither forged nor imitated. The method of its controlled appearance by the exertion of will was just about the most closely guarded secret of the Council.


(ed note: In the movie Casablanca, Victor Laszlo is a hero of the Free French Forces, fighting the Nazi occupation.

Berger is Laszlo's resistance contact in Casablanca. Laszlo does not know him so he needs a secret badge to identify himself. )

Berger walks up to their table.

BERGER Excuse me, but you look like a couple who are on their way to America.

Berger takes a ring from his finger.

BERGER You will find a market there for this ring. I am forced to sell it at a great sacrifice.
LASZLO Thank you, but I hardly think —
BERGER — Then perhaps for the lady. The ring is quite unique.

He holds it down for their view. Carefully lifting up the stone, he reveals a gold plate in the setting underneath, an impression of the Lorraine Cross of General de Gaulle.

LASZLO Oh, yes, I'm very interested.

Berger sits down with them.

(ed note: During World War II, Capitaine de corvette Thierry d'Argenlieu suggested the Croix de Lorraine ☨ as the symbol of the Free French Forces led by Charles de Gaulle as an answer to the Nazi swastika.

In the book CASABLANCA: BEHIND THE SCENES by Harlan Lebo, it is revealed that according to Warner, the ring was more than just a badge. It was "a combination ID signal, poison cabinet, and microfilm encyclopedia".

Thanks to Mark Siefert for pointing out the Casablanca ring to me.)

From CASABLANCA (1942)

In the movie The Last Jedi, the character Rose Tico has a ring much like Berger's Croix de Lorraine ring, with the same function.

The main difference is instead of the secret badge being hidden by a hinged gemstone, it is instead behind a leaf iris door (as a side note, her sister Paige Tico enters the bomb-bay room through a petal iris door).

Rose's ring is an antique from the days of the first Star Wars trilogy, where Imperial senators would use it as a secret badge for the rebellion. The emblem is the Alliance crest, which is a star bird (i.e., a phoenix rising from the ashes). The days of the Alliance are long gone, but unfortunately Nazis just never go out of style. Resistance is an eternal task.

Of course, a master prop creator named Todd Blatt is busy making a replica of the ring.

In the TV show Babylon 5, there is a covert group of defenders called the Anla'Shok (Rangers). The group was founded about a thousand years ago by the Mimbari aliens during the first Shadow War.

After the war they became general guardians. Their numbers declined until they were a small group of old Mimbari. But they suddenly became important when the second Shadow War started.

Initially their role was one of covert intelligence operatives. Which meant they needed a secret badge. This took the form of a green gemstone with a stylized Mimbari alien on the left. Later when Humans were recruited into the Anla'Shok the badge was altered to include a stylized human on the right.

Once the Anla'Shok took over a more military role, the secret badge became the insignia worn openly on their uniforms.

In the movie Logan's Run, the citizens living in the domed cities lead a hedonistic existence. Unfortunately when they turn 30 years old they are put to death, but the process is ritualized so much that most citizens undergo it like so many sheep.

Citizens who have a problem with this become secret rebels, seeking escape from euthanasia. Their secret badge is an Ankh ☥. This is the traditional symbol of life, but since a society where everybody is under 30 has no traditions the hidden meaning of the badge is not commonly known. Security through obscurity in other words.

The badge will unlock a secret exit hidden in the depths of the city to allow escape into "Sanctuary." Actually there is a boxy complication, but I digress.

In the TV series The Game of Thrones, Arya Stark is given one of the Iron Coins of the Faceless Men. It is used as a recognition token by that secretive guild of assassins.


(ed note: The Lord Darcy stories are set in an alternate history where Richard I returned to England after being wounded at the siege of Chaluz, instead of dying like he did in our timeline.

But the main difference is in Darcy's timeline, they have a highly developed system of magic, while science is considered to be on par with our Flat Earth Society. Their level of technology is about par with our Victorian era.)


      Seven minutes and some odd seconds later, Lord Darcy, fully dressed in proper morning costume, opened the door to his sitting room. Mary, Dowager Duchess of Cumberland, was nowhere in sight. A short, spare, melancholy-looking man, wearing the usual blue-gray drab of a cabman, was sitting on one of the chairs. When he saw Lord Darcy, he came politely to his feet, his square cabman's hat in his hand.
     "Lord Darcy?"
     "The same. And you?"

     From his cap, the smallish man took a silver badge engraved with the Royal Arms. Near the top a stone, polished but not faceted and looking like a quarter-inch bit of translucent gray glass, was inset in the metal.
     "King's Messenger, my lord," said the man. He slid his right thumb forward and touched the stone. Immediately, it ceased to be a small lump of dull gray glass.
     In the light, it gleamed with the reddish glow of a ruby!
     There was no mistaking it. The stone was magically attuned to one man and one man only—the man whose touch would cause that red color to shine within it. A Royal Badge could be stolen, of course, but no thief could give that gray, drab stone its ruby glow.
     The brilliant Sir Edward Elmer, Th.D., had designed that spell more than thirty years before, and no one had solved it yet; it was a perfect identification for Personal Agents of His Most Dread and Sovereign Majesty, John IV. The late Sir Edward had been Grand Master of the Sorcerers Guild, and it was accepted that he had outranked even Sir Lyon Gandolphus Grey as a sorcerer.

     "Very well," said Lord Darcy. He did not ask the man's name; a King's Messenger remains anonymous. "The message?"

(ed note: This is a nice shout-out on the part of Randall Garrett. A famous author named Edward Elmer "Doc" Smith wrote the LENSMAN series. In it, the Lensmen are identified by the Lens, a multi-jewel object that will glow with rainbow light but only when touched by the Lensman it is attuned to.)


     Lord Darcy went over the body very carefully this time, his lean, strong fingers probing, feeling. He checked the lining of the jacket, his fingertips squeezing everywhere, searching for lumps or the crackle of paper. Nothing. He took off the wide belt, looking for hidden pockets. Nothing. He checked the boot heels. Nothing.
     Finally he pulled off the calf-length boots themselves.
     And, with a murmur of satisfaction, he withdrew an object from a flat interior pocket of the right one.

     It was a flat, slightly curved silver badge engraved with the double-headed eagle of the Imperium. Set in it was what looked like a dull, translucent, grayish, cabochon-cut piece of glass. But all three men knew that if Peabody's living flesh had touched that gem, it would have glowed like a fire-ruby.

     "A King's Messenger," the Praefect said softly.
     No one else's touch would make that gem glow. The spell, invented by Master Sorcerer Sir Edward Elmer back in the Thirties, had never been solved, and no one knew what sorcerer at present had charge of that secret and made these badges for the King.
     This particular badge would never glow again.

From LORD DARCY by Randall Garrett

Military Insignia

And don't forget the spacecraft, it might have nose-art. noted that typical US Navy ships have a squadron logo someplace, while cruisers tend to have the logo of their Group because in the US Navy cruisers are in Groups rather than Squadrons.

Christopher Weuve said that he is a big fan of DESRON-21's logo. As he puts it, just change "Solomons" to something else suitable (Orion? Arcturus?) and you're ready to go.

In a discussion about future military spacecraft paint schemes, Barry Messina says:

MacArthur (from Niven and Pournelle's THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE) is more likely to have some sort of Imperial or Royalist symbology, and might carry personal marks signifying the presence of senior leadership (like Counts) if the leadership was aboard in an official capacity. When the political leader was aboard in an active duty military role, serving as Lt Blaine rather than Count Blaine, then no distinguishing logos for the political rank would be shown. This is like Prince Charles, on active duty with the Royal Navy, being addressed as Lt Windsor, rather than Your Highness. The squadron commodore can tell Lt Windsor that Lt Windsor has done a bad job of getting his minesweeper ready for an inspection. When Lt Windsor's Mom comes by for HRH's birthday, then the squadron commodore had better be on the pier ready to salute. If MacArthur is in a "Royalist" navy, then I'd expect a different "style" from the Strategic Star Command "style".

(The Strategic Star Command cruiser) Leif (Ericson) seems to be stuck in a different storyline, so the SAC-type logos and more aircraft-like, and less naval, marking scheme makes sense.

Another sort of "political" consideration for you to think about: Military organizations with very centrally-managed information operations and publicity campaigns tend to have a consistent "style" in their graphics, and in the integration of their uniforms and symbols. This is most evident during peacetime. Military organizations operating far from HQ, and under combat pressure, tend to be more informal. For instance, German submarines have always (as far as I know off the top of my head) been U-XXX with no other official name. In WWII, many of the subs had unofficial names and a command graphic. Most of the graphics were done by the crew and did not have that polished, commercial "look". The personality of the sub CO had a lot to do with this. The same thing goes for command mottos: there's the official motto on the ship's logo, there's the crew's version of the official motto, and then there's the crew's version of the ship's actual motto. For instance, USS DEWEY DDG-45, official motto PAX PROMPTER VIM, crew translation S**T HAPPENS, crew motto WHY US?.

Barry Messina

      U.S. Military uniforms feature the U.S. flag, which is worn backwards. People often ask why the flag is reversed when worn as a patch on a uniform. Not all U.S. flag patches are reversed — only those worn on the right shoulder. The reason has to do with long-running traditions and regulations created before the Civil War. The rule is that the blue field of stars should always be in the highest position of honor on the uniform.
     That position has always been the right shoulder with the flag's blue stars facing forward.


     Basically, the idea behind the backwards American flag on Army uniforms is to make it look as though the flag is flying in the breeze as the person wearing it moves forward.
     The rule dates back to the Army's early history, when both mounted cavalry and infantry units would designate a standard bearer, who carried the flag into battle. As this standard bearer charged, his forward momentum caused the flag to stream back. Since the Stars and Stripes are mounted with the canton closest to the pole, that section of the flag stayed to the right, while the stripes flew to the left.
     Therefore, the flag is worn on the right shoulder, and wearing it backwards gives the effect of the flag flying in the breeze as the wearer moves forward.
     In 2003, in the beginning of the Global War on Terror, the uniform regulation for the Army was updated. Army Regulation 670-1, “Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia,” addresses explicitly the proper and lawful placement of the U.S. flag patch on the Army uniform.
     “The Stars are to face forward,” the regulation states. When authorized for application to the proper uniform the American flag patch is to be worn, right or left shoulder. One of the flags will, therefore, be reversed (right shoulder) in order to adhere to the regulation and custom of having the stars facing forward. The term, “Assaulting Forward” has been adopted by combat troops versus “Facing Forward”.
     The appropriate flag (color or subdued) for the right shoulder sleeve is identified as the ‘reverse side flag’.


A hand wheel set in the middle of the inner airlock door turned of its own accord (obviously operated by someone on the other side), and the door swung back on its hinges. The older crewman indicated by means of sign language that she should step through into the ship proper. Chryse nodded vigorously, unsnapped her safety line, and did so. She found herself in a sort of antechamber where four men in uniform gathered around the airlock. She moved into the middle of the chamber, stopped, and surveyed her surroundings.

The uniforms were blue one-piece jumpsuits. Each man wore an insignia on his upper right chest — two gold, eight-pointed stars (one large, the other significantly smaller) with a silver comet arcing away from them. Besides the stars-and-comet design, the men wore ornamentation on their collars that Chryse identified as being their insignia of rank.

(ed note: the crew are from an expedition sent to the system of Procyon, which is a binary star system. Procyon A is an F5 star, but Procyon B is a tiny white dwarf. This explains the insignia's large star and small star. The expedition was sent specifically to investigate an alien faster-than-light starship seen leaving the system, which explains the silver comet.)

An experiment in inventing the spacecraft colors for the science fictional Strategic Space Command.

The amazing Robert Lee Merrill of Hungry Lizard Studios has quite a few suggestions for the Strategic Space Command insignia


A Roundel is circular disc used as a symbol, often as a military insignia on a warcraft. They were all the rage on military aircraft from World War 1 to World War 2. I'm sure you've seen them on Sopwith Camel biplanes.

However, I have a pet idea that such insignia will be useful on combat spacecraft. This isn't a particularly good idea, but it does allow putting the romantic era of wood-and-fabric biplanes into your space combat science fiction novel with some plausible deniability (Curse you, Red Baron!). Also, hobbyists who paint miniature spaceships will find that a roundel is much easier to paint than a full fledged flag.

Here is my reasoning:

Putting a Automatic Identification System on your warship just gives enemy radio-homing missiles some radio to home in on. There is no reason to make it any easier for the enemy to kill you. Assuming that the future still has some silly international norms governing recognition markings, this means some sort of nationality identifying symbol will have to be painted on the combat spacecraft.

Now, back in World War 1, wet naval vessels and armored fighting vehicles could be emblazoned with the national flag, or a simplification. Since as a general rule boats and tanks always stayed horizontal during normal operation, the flag symbol would always be displayed in the proper orientation.

This system suddenly didn't work with the advent of combat aircraft. Anti-aircraft batteries on the ground would be looking up at the belly of an unidentified aircraft, which could be oriented in any of 360 different degrees relative to the battery. This hampers the identification of a flag symbol, possibly leading to the escape of an enemy or the destruction of a friendly aircraft. The same applies to a given aircraft trying to identify another aircraft currently doing an Immelmann turn. Aircraft are not always horizontal during normal operations.

The solution is to make a flag symbol that does not depend upon being viewed perfectly horizontally. It must be identifiable at any angle. So it will have to have radial symmetry. Something like a multi-pointed star will do. Even better is something that looks like a bullseye, with different colored concentric rings.

In other words: a roundel.

I warned you it wasn't a particularly good idea.

Historically, in the real world, roundels grew out of cockades. This is a colored pleated ribbon bent into a circle. Yes, they look like a bullseye with different colored concentric rings. From the 15th century various European monarchies had their soldiers wear cockades to identify their nationality. During the Napoleonic wars, the armies of France used the imperial French cockade or the larger cockade of St. George pinned on the front of their shakos.

So when France developed aircraft shortly before World War 1, they used the French national cockade. A blue disc, surrounded by a thick white ring, which was surrounded by a thick red ring (colors of the French flag).

England used the Union Jack Flag on their aircraft. Until they found out the hard way that to British anti-aircraft batteries, the Union Jack was too easily confused with the German Iron Cross. So England adopted the roundel, using a red disc, surrounded by a thick white ring, which was surrounded by a thick blue ring. During World War 2, they found the roundel was sometimes hard to make out if the body of the aircraft was of similar hue to the outer blue ring. So they added a third ring as the new outermost: a thick chrome yellow ring for constrast.

The United States initially used a red disc surrounded by a huge five-pointed white star, within a blue disc. Sort of like the British roundel, with the white ring bent into a pentagram. This proved to be too close to the Iron Cross, so it was briefly changed to a white disc with a blue ring surrouned by a red ring. But they went back to the pentagram a year later. During World War 2 the red disc was removed because it looked too much like the red disc of the Japanese roundel, leaving just a white star in a blue disc.

Dave O'Malley can tell you all you want to know about Canadian roundels.

Roundels were used on the wings and fuselage. In addition, vertical, horizontal or slanted stripes in the same colours as the main insignia were painted on the fin or rudder. These were called a Fin flash or rudder stripes. Spacecraft that operate in atmospheres (or which were inspired by the V-2 rocket) have fins, some with rudders. Exo-atmospheric spacecraft, not so much.

Empire Insignia


The floor of the hall had been cleared of seats.

Above the stage at the far end were the three closed circles of the Federation — Freedom, Peace, and Law, so intertwined that, if any one were removed, the other two would fall apart.

Under them was the Patrol's own sign, a star blazing in the night.

From SPACE CADET by Robert Heinlein (1948)

      The Commdor’s own bodyguard, in the confusion, had struggled to the front line, and Mallow, for the first time, was near enough to see their unfamiliar hand-weapons in detail. They were nuclear! There was no mistaking it; an explosive projectile weapon with a barrel like that was impossible. But that wasn’t the big point. That wasn’t the point at all.

     The butts of those weapons had, deeply etched upon them, in worn gold plating, the Spaceship-and-Sun!

     The same Spaceship-and-Sun that was stamped on every. one of the great volumes of the original Encyclopedia that the Foundation had begun and not yet finished. The same Spaceship-and-Sun that had blazoned the banner of the Galactic Empire through millennia.
     Mallow talked through and around his thoughts, “Test that pipe! It’s one piece. Not perfect; naturally, the joining shouldn’t be done by hand.”
     There was no need of further legerdemain. It had gone over. Mallow was through. He had what he wanted. There was only one thing in his mind. The golden globe with its conventionalized rays, and the oblique cigar shape that was a space vessel.

     The Spaceship-and-Sun of the Empire!

From FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1951)

(ed note: The Polesotechnic League is not an empire so much as it is a merchant guild. The word "Polesotechnic" was coined by Poul's wife Karen Anderson from the Greek for "selling skills")

His gaze went to the League emblem on the wall behind her, a golden sunburst afire with jewels, surrounding an ancient rocketship, and the motto: All the traffic will bear. That could be taken two ways, he reflected sourly. Beneath it was the trademark of this outfit, the Solar Spice & Liquors Company.

From MARGIN OF PROFIT by Poul Anderson (1956)

Falkayn proceeded to the main office. Beljagor sat behind his desk, puffing a cigar. Above him hung the emblem of the Polesotechnic League, an early Caravel spaceship on a sunburst and the motto All the Traffic Will Bear. Computers, vocascribes, and other equipment were familiar, too. The boss was not. Falkayn had never met anyone from Jaleel before.

From A SUN INVISIBLE by Poul Anderson (1966)

Malaika disappeared forward and Flinx gave his bag to the officious-looking young fellow who wore the House of Malaika arms (crossed starship and credit slip) on his cap and jacket. The man ducked into a low door to the rear, leaving Flinx alone in the small lock. Rather than stand by himself until the man returned to check him off, he moved forward to the passenger cabin and found himself an empty seat.

From THE TAR-AIYM KRANG by Alan Dean Foster (1983)

Chung Dragon

The author's father, Major Winchell D. Chung, (ret.) used to be the navigator/bombardier officer on a SAC B-52 aircraft. For his crew he painted insignia on their helmets. Years later when I saw the first Star Wars movie I wondered why the X-wing pilot's helmets looked oddly familiar.

I always wondered about the dragon emblem. Thinking back, I vaguely remembered it was based on a water-slide decal. After a bit of an internet search, I figured what I was remembering was the IMPKO dragon decal from 1960. It appears my father modified it to have four feet instead of just two.

Judging by the way RocketCat is eyeballing the dragon, I figure there will be a new emblem added to his space suit.

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