What is Warchalking?

Robert Grimmick

Warchalking is the practice of drawing symbols with chalk on surfaces in public places such as sidewalks and walls to indicate the presence of a nearby wireless network. The design of these warchalking symbols were heavily influenced by Great Depression-era “hobo symbols.” The concept originated in the United Kingdom in 2002 and quickly gained popularity. Since then, warchalking has lost much of its luster, but the concept of using symbols to denote the availability of Wi-Fi® hotspots did not disappear completely.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

The warchalker’s arsenal includes only three distinct symbols, but these are enough to alert any passersby to the presence and setup of a nearby wireless hotspot. Two broken semi-circles facing in opposite directions indicate a completely open Wi-Fi® network, while a full circle designates a closed hotspot that may require some form of payment or have other restrictions. A full circle with the letter “W” inside marks a network protected by encryption. The service set identifier (SSID), a user-defined name that identifies the network, might be listed above the symbol, while the network’s available bandwidth may be listed below. All are intended to be drawn with chalk, forcing the community to reapply the marks with current information on a regular basis.

The concept of warchalking and the design of its symbols were heavily influenced by the hobo sign language used during the Great Depression. These symbols were simple markings to communicate the presence of a free meal, danger, or other general information between wanderers of the 1920s and 30s. Warchalking symbols aren’t directly lifted from hobo sign language, but the stylistic influence is clear.

British information architect Matt Jones created both the concept and term warchalking in 2002. The term was a deliberate reference to “warwalking,” the act of walking around a neighborhood in search of Wi-Fi® signals. Within a few weeks, Jones’ idea had grown into a sort of digital fad and was being shared across blogs and technology news sites. A community of warchalkers seemed to appear overnight; one entrepreneur even designed a T-shirt inspired by the phenomenon.

Warchalking has since been mostly forgotten. Many of the websites dedicated to the grassroots movement have vanished, and most of the chalk symbols themselves have faded away. In an era where wireless networks are ubiquitous, users don’t often need to spend time hunting for a hotspot. Still, the idea of using symbols to denote the availability of Wi-Fi® service wasn’t a complete failure; many coffee shops, cafes, and bookstores use stickers or signs to announce to customers that wireless access is available.

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