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I was wondering what the association between gears and settings is because the symbolism/iconography is not clear to me. I can see that in the old days people might have used the wrench or screwdriver (sometimes a hammer as well) to make adjustments to machinery that is equivalent to changing settings, but these days it is mostly switches and toggles but I believe people prefer to stick with icons that they are familiar and comfortable with.

As a side question, I have wondered just how many teeth on a cog/gear does it take to make it look like a settings symbol (and whether it should be even or odd numbered). It seems like too many or too few can be unclear, and it seems like the optimum number is between 6-8.

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Gears are associated with changing watch settings. I think that might be the origin. – nuwa Jun 20 '14 at 2:36
It would be interesting to know when this icon was introduced. – PhillipW Jun 20 '14 at 8:22
It's also interesting that Chrome removed its wrench icon in favor of the hamburger a while ago: – mbillard Jun 20 '14 at 13:48

I believe the gear icon symbolizes opening something up to look at its "guts" to see how it operates on that inner level. Changing the direction of a single cog causes changes the motion of the next gear, and so on, meaning this is where you can make changes to how the system will work.

Since a tool is a device used to carry out a particular function, the common icon of two different tools (wrench and screwdriver) implies that this is where you choose which functions you want the system to perform.

Personally, I associate the cog with a list of settings with equal options of a or b (a gear only has two directions to turn), and the tools with more optional or add-on settings (since you may have a toolbox with multiple tools).

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