Hey, Steelers, Where'd You Get That Logo?

Nov 13, 2015

The love Steelers fans have for their team is the stuff of legend: hordes of faithful waving Terrible Towels, wearing logo-emblazoned pajama pants, cheering in one of the nation’s more than 700 Steelers bars. So I figured the best way to learn the back-story of the logo was to go right to the source: Heinz Field, on a Sunday, an hour before kickoff.

It was a leisurely crowd.

People lined up at the gates or sat in the courtyard eating sandwiches and drinking beer. The loudspeaker alternated between pop tunes and security announcements. I approached a group of men wearing Steelers sweatshirts and jackets: Do you happen to know the history of the Steelers logo?

One man turned back and paused. “I love the Pirates,” he said.

I asked an older couple in what looked like letterman jackets: Do you know why our logo is what it is?

“No,” he said, drawing out the “o” and laughed. “No, I don’t know why.”

Another couple heard me ask the question and asked me to repeat it: I’m doing a story about the history of the Steelers logo. Do you happen to know it?

“I don’t,” said Clayton Thaman. “Wait! Steelers…steel mill?”

I started to wonder if it was normal to know the history of a logo. Then I met Lou Ferrello and Fred Ramsden.

“This was the U.S. Steel logo,” said Ferrello, pointing at the embroidered logo on his jacket.

In 1962, a representative from Republic Steel in Cleveland visited Steelers owner Dan Rooney. The rep showed him artwork U.S. Steel created to educate people about how steel “lightens your work, brightens your leisure and widens your world.” At the time, the Steelers didn’t really have a logo. Their only nod to that new-ish trend appeared on team letterhead: a guy, standing on a steel beam, punting.

Football fan Chris Vaughan prefers the stars.

“Coal, ore and scrap steel,” Vaughan said, pointing to each one in turn. “The three hypocycloids.”

Over time, the three stars, er, hypocycloids, came to stand for the three things needed to make steel: yellow for coke, orange for iron ore, blue for scrap steel. The Steelers represent Steel City and their logo represents steel — makes sense. What makes less sense is why a seemingly random shape is the symbol of steel.  

To figure out why, I went to see Tom Hales in Thackeray Hall at the University of Pittsburgh. If the fourth floor of an academic building seems like the wrong place to talk steel, you’re correct. But it’s the right place to talk hypocycloids.

“The hypocycloid, or the astroid, as it’s called, is a four-pointed star,” said Hales.  

Hales is a mathematician and a professor at Pitt. He says the shape’s equations describe the motion of one circle within another, the way a gear might move inside another gear. Those same equations also describe, for example, how a folding door opens.

“They all have an underlying unity, because they’re described by the same mathematics," Hales said. "By studying one of these you get an understanding of all of them.”

Geometry gives form to the world, he said, and hypocycloids show up in all sorts of mechanical places: trains, clocks, and yes, steel plants. While it certainly doesn’t play the most crucial role in steelmaking, Hales said its selection as steel’s logo likely wasn’t an accident.

“Without knowing the manufacturing processes, I can imagine that it points to that history of industry and machines,” he said.

At Heinz Field, I caught up with two women crossing the grass to the game. Did they know the history of the Steelers’ logo?

“Historically, it means everything,” said one. “So you know, you don’t really need to say any more than that.”

Point taken.

90.5 WESA Celebrates Inventing Pittsburgh is supported by UPMC