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Why do so many applications and websites use a magnifying glass as a search icon ? A magnifying glass is a tool used to have a better view of small objects. It suits perfectly as an icon for a zoom. But I can't figure out why it is now considered as a good representation for search.

Does anyone have an explanation, or a history of the first software or websites that have popularized the magnifying glass as a search metaphor ?

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A stereotypical classical detective uses a magnifying glass to search for clues. –  zzzzBov Jul 14 '12 at 8:43
    
Yup.. Also see here: google.com/… –  David van Ballegooijen Jul 14 '12 at 10:25
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I agree, it seems strange. Also, a find icon is generally a pair of binoculars which would be better suited to search. I think this has become the standard convention now, so changing it only confuse people as it's not what they expected. –  Richard Jul 14 '12 at 12:03
    
Please consider marking an answer as accepted, or providing a comment about what else you're looking for that hasn't been answered. –  Kit Grose Apr 3 at 23:32
    
I call the 'search icon' a "spy glass" when I teach students how to search the Internet. I agree with the explanation here of the 'search icon'. This discussion helped me better explain the 'search icon' to my students. And confirms my theory about the use of the "spy glass" icon. –  Aimee Aug 15 at 12:56

5 Answers 5

Well what I feel search means finding stuffs... And when you want to find stuffs you will do a check on every small byte of information so that you don't miss anything. You select your area and go to the very deep into it to get all necessary information. So how do you find such small piece of information..."magnifying glass" we have built it to see the small things which are not visible to naked eye... So that's way they are related...

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This is a really nice answer. Welcome to UX.SE! –  Benny MCSA Office365 Sep 13 '12 at 18:48
    
Hmmm... I find that when I need to find something, I usually need to do the exact opposite. Instead of focussing on every detail, I have to 'zoom out' and take it all in instead. Get a holistic view, if you will. –  André Sep 14 '12 at 12:55

I concur with the other answers above; the icon comes from the police inspector/detective stereotype, as shown in some very well-loved cartoons:

Inspector Gadget
Image from Search-Best-Cartoon.com

The Inspector from The Pink Panther Show
Image from Tim's TV Showcase

For the most part, most computer systems buried the find/search function in menus (meaning it often had no icon at all). It was really only on devices and systems that emphasised highly visual iconography (like PDAs) that an icon was developed for it.

One of the interesting problems with any of the icons below is that a tool that uses a magnifying glass icon (or even binoculars, see below) can be conceivably mistaken for one that magnifies text on screen (especially since most operating systems supported such a function from early on), leading to the very weird situation we have now (here's the Windows Magnifier icon in Windows Vista):

Windows Vista "Magnifier" icon
Image from Wikipedia

…and these icons are also often used to zoom in and out respectively (this rather convoluted example comes from Apple's built-in Preview app and shows the zoom out, actual size, zoom in and search toolbar functions all using magnifying glasses for their icons):

The zoom in and out icons in preview, which also use a magnifying glass icon


Early examples of the icon in use

Some historical examples of this icon in use:

NeXT Inc. Workspace Manager

This example dates to the late 80s (the very first edition of what would become NeXTSTEP).

NeXT Inc. Workspace Manager v1.0, showing a magnifying glass used for searching
Image from Typewritten Software's excellent gallery of old and obscure OSes

Apple Newton OS

The original Newton MessagePad (released in 1993) was (to my knowledge) the first product to use the icon:

The original Newton MessagePad
Image from Newton Gallery!

Apple's Newton OS used the icon as a persistent icon for find specifically. From the New Features of the Newton 2.0 Operating System manual, Apple says:

Tap the Find button 🔍 to search for items in selected applications.

Screenshot of Apple Newton OS 2.0, showing the "Find" icon in the dock The notes app in Newton OS 2.0, also showing the find button
Screenshots from PDAdb.net

Palm OS

The original Palm Pilot 1000 (and later Palm OS devices) used a very similar find icon:

Palm Pilot 5000 showing the find icon in the graffiti panelThe PalmPilot Personal, a later Palm PDA that also used the magnifying glass for find
Images from Wikipedia; 1, 2

Apple Mac OS 9

Mac OS 8.5 introduced a feature called Sherlock intended to make finding files easy. While its app icon and UI didn't include a magnifying glass (instead it relied on the icon of Sherlock Holmes' classic deerstalker), it did creep into a lot of the supporting marketing:

Photo of a Mac OS 8.5 t-shirt featuring the Sherlock word mark with magnifying glass
Photo by Federico Giacanelli

Image of a Mac OS 8.5 magazine spread prominently featuring a magnifying glass Photo by Max Pictures

When Mac OS 9 came out, including with it a wholly-revamped update to the app (called, appropriately, Sherlock 2), Apple went "all in" with the magnifying glass iconography:

Mac OS 9 box, prominently featuring the magnifying glass icon
Photo from Amazon.com

Microsoft Windows 95

Before Windows 95, the Search function was hidden away in a menu (meaning it didn't have any icon).

In Windows 95, with the advent of the Start menu, the renamed "Find" function got the now-familiar icon:

Windows 95 Start Menu, showing the Find icon with magnifying glass
Image from Wikipedia

The icon was also used for the new Windows Explorer icon as seen above (which had previously been called "File Manager"). The new icon brought it into line with the Internet Explorer icon which hadn't yet turned into the lowercase e we all know now.

Friend Finder

Legendary icon designer Susan Kare designed an icon for an app called Friend Finder which features in her book of icons:

Susan Kare's Friend Finder icon


Notable Alternatives

Some alternatives to this (now ubiquitous) icon for searching over the years include:

Binoculars

As used in the original Mosaic Netscape and the next few versions of Navigator, as well as—briefly—in Microsoft Word

Mosaic Netscape, featuring binoculars for the "Find" function

The binoculars icon used for "Find" in Microsoft Word

Torch/flashlight

As used in Netscape Navigator 4 and Netscape Communicator

Netscape Navigator 4, featuring a new torch icon for the renamed "Search" function

A dog/hound

As used in the Windows XP search assistant, and the original Dogpile.com search engine logo)

The Windows XP Search Assistant (a dog)

The old Dogpile home page, circa 1998

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Great.... Nice research –  sysscore Jul 16 '12 at 12:54
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Amazing bit of documentation there! –  DA01 Sep 13 '12 at 19:35
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My day is complete! Thanks Kit! –  drawtheweb Sep 13 '12 at 21:10

I always thought, that this icon is derived from the character Sherlock Holmes who is often depicted looking for hints (searching) with a magnifying glass.

E.g. try an image search for: sherlock holmes magnifying glass:

https://www.google.de/search?q=sherlock+holmes+magnifying+glass&tbm=isch

picture of Sherlock Holmes

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I had a hunt through Icon histories and the first place I can find it is in Windows 95 http://psd.tutsplus.com/articles/theory/know-your-icons-part-1-a-brief-history-of-computer-icons/:

enter image description here

I mostly did a trawl through the computers suggested from the Wikipedia article History of the graphical user interface

In the early Apple Mac OS 4.2 UI the Find File UI certainly didn't have a Magnifying Glass:

enter image description here

Nor did Windows 3.1 UI seem to use a Magnifying Glass either:

enter image description here

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NextStep is quite older (and better) than Win95 and had the magnifying icon: typewritten.org/Media/Images/nextstep-1.0.png –  Diana Jul 15 '12 at 0:40

Think about Biology. Perhaps you are using a magnifying glass to look for the existence of micro lives in water or to be sure whether a plant specimen contains certain criteria to be from a certain biological group. You assume there can be such things there and you start tracing that by zooming the specimens in. As to a binocular unlike a magnifying glass , you are trying to zoom things at a great distance which you probably cannot deal with in full details. A magnifying glass is smart enough to be used because if there is the existence of something apparently invisible to you, you find that, and if there exists no such thing, you become sure of that.

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This is actually a very good analogy. Using a magnifying glass for searching within a specific defined area (i.e. a website). –  JonW Jul 14 '12 at 13:07

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