I Googled for hours, asked every EE professor in my college, then checked every electrical engineering book in my university's library (hours), and have found nothing about the history of the ground symbol. Please point me if you can.

Who coined it? What does the picture represent? I have many probable theories and almost no interest in theories.

Thank you

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    \$\begingroup\$ And what about the other schematic symbols? Do you think each one will have a known author? These are defined in specific standard documents developed and published by standards committee. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eugene Sh.
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 21:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you talking about the ANSI symbol? Because the European symbol is pretty straightforward \$\endgroup\$
    – Albits
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 21:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Shame on the downvoters. It's a perfectly reasonable question, and one whose answer I don't know. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 22:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Eugene Sh. I imagine an "author", as you put it, MUST exist for each symbol. Whether they are recorded in history I am unsure. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave Sims
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 6:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DaveGoldsmith My bad, I got a little confused. In fact there is no different ground symbol between ANSI and DIN, but various different symbols in both norms : earth, chassis and signal, among others. The chassis groud for instance uses the style that is used in mechanical schematics to represent the chassis. But I have no idea who designed them, probably boards from normalization organisms (such as IEEE) \$\endgroup\$
    – Albits
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 7:07

1 Answer 1


                                         enter image description here

IEC No. 5017, better known as Earth Ground, is the result of many over a 100 years of organic evolution, convention, and most recently, rigorous international standardization.

The earth ground symbol owes its origin to the same origin that many other symbols do (notably the inductor, capacitor, and American resistor symbol): the patent drawings of Nikola Tesla.

What is arguably one of his greatest contributions is one without any patent and has no material form: the abstraction of bulk properties (inductance, resistance, capacitance) into components that possess one of these properties but very little of the other two. I don't know to what degree this attribution is fair, as Edison was also beginning to this at the same time, and considering Tesla at one point worked for Edison, and they doubtlessly were aware of each other's patents (they weren't the mortal enemies/mega rivals of modern mythos, closer to peers in an emerging field), but at the very least, that abstraction arose from Tesla, Edison, Marconi, and the great inventors the era all building off of each other.

The specific imagery, however, are obviously from Tesla, simply because his are the ones that look like our present day symbols.

Originally, these drawings represented real structures for the sake of patent submissions, but certain structures were reused over and over, and drawn over and over, and at least based on his drawings, evolved into pictograms over time and organically.

A pictogram is formally defined as a symbol that conveys meaning by approximating the physical appearance of the object it represents. In the case of the ground symbol, it's origin is from a drawing of a grounding plate buried beneath the ground. The vertical line is the wire, the top most horizontal line is the surface of the actual rock-and-dirt ground, and the lower two lines are the top and bottom of a grounding plate.

Here is such a representation, from one of Tesla's patents, dated 1900:enter image description here

And shortly after, this makes it even more apparent and it is easy to see how the modern ground symbol originated from these drawings:

enter image description here

In that era, patents were a lot like open source is today, in a way. You were given exclusive rights to commercialize the subject of a patent, but this protection was given only in exchange for making how your invention worked available to anyone. Patents were, and still remain, completely public. Considering Nikola Tesla drew the first schematics, has a patent on several fundamental circuit components (like capacitors, or condensers as they used to be called) and, as a consequence, his drawings were made available to and were built upon by his peers of the time. Marconi adopted the ground plate semi-symbol, as did others. Given how closely knit and small the world of electrical technology was then, it makes perfect sense that the depictions used in patents would turn into shorthand for recognized concepts, and ultimately, pictrographic icons we know and love today.

Which is why, if you look at one of Tesla's early patent drawings, you can immediately recognize what everything is, because it is those very drawings that ultimately evolved into the symbols used throughout circuit diagrams today. enter image description here

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know if it is true but compliment and +1 for the research! It is really interesting to see how Tesla done drawing of the capacitor. \$\endgroup\$
    – Antonio
    Commented Jun 15, 2016 at 12:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wow, Tesla had multi-layer ceramic chip caps to work with? I wo \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 15, 2016 at 14:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ChrisStratton I assume those are glass plate caps. \$\endgroup\$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Apr 17, 2022 at 16:33

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