The chip system is thought to have begun in Indianapolis in 1942. The tradition is believed to have started with Doherty S., who originally brought A.A. to Indianapolis. Doherty himself, in a letter to Bill, seems to indicate the practice originated in Indianapolis in 1942.
Nell Wing wrote in 1962 about the history of the chip system: "…The chip system might have begun in Indianapolis….reference was made in a letter from Doherty to the start of giving out ‘AA chips’, AA coins', and ‘AA tokens.’ This was in 1942. I imagine this would be about right, because most of the early groups started in 1940 and it would take about a couple of years to think of anniversaries and marking any time of sobriety. I asked Bill about this and his memory is that the system started in Indianapolis."
In Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers, it indicates that Sister Ignatia in Akron, working at St. Thomas Hospital, also used medallions: “Sister Ignatia gave each of her newly released patients a Sacred Heart medallion, which she asked them to return before they took the first drink. She would occasionally give out St. Christopher medals as well…” (page 195).
We don’t know precisely who started this system first, or when and how it spread to other groups. As with many things in AA, the exact nature of the history eludes us!
Copyright © www.AA.org
you noticed that the circle and triangle symbol no longer appears at the top of
the Grapevine’s Table of Contents? The decision to remove it has its roots in
recent events: actions of the 1993 General Service Conference, and subsequent
actions by the Board of Trustees and the directors of AA World Services.
Adopted at the 20th Anniversary
International Convention in St. Louis, the circle and triangle symbol was
registered as an official AA mark in 1955, and has been widely used by various
AA entities. By the mid-1980s, however, it had also begun to be used by outside
organizations, such as novelty manufacturers, publishers, and occasionally
treatment facilities. There was growing concern in the membership of AA about
Some AA members were saying “we don’t want our circle and triangle aligned with
non-AA purposes.” In keeping with the Sixth Tradition, that AA “. . . ought never endorse, finance or lend the AA name to any
related facility or outside enterprise . . .”, the AA World Services board
began in 1986 to contact outside entities that were using the circle and
triangle in an unauthorized manner, and to take action to prevent such use of
the symbol. AAWS implemented this policy with restraint, and did not resort to
legal remedies until all attempts at persuasion and conciliation had been
unsuccessful. Of about 170 unauthorized users contacted, two suits were
filed and both were settled in the very early stages.
Denying the use of the symbol to
outside entities raised other problems, however. By early 1990, it was clear
that some AA members very much wanted to be able to obtain AA coins and AA medallions with “our” circle and triangle. Both the AAWS and
Grapevine Corporate boards began receiving requests to produce sobriety chips
and medallions, and the matter was discussed at a joint meeting of the two
boards in October 1990. Their consensus was that production of tokens and
medallions was unrelated to our primary purpose of carrying the AA message, and
they suggested that the matter be given a thorough airing at the General
Service Conference in order to seek a group conscience from the Fellowship.
At the 1992 Conference, there were
presentations on why we should or should not produce AA coins and medallions, and on the
responsibility of AAWS to protect our trademarks and copyrights. The result was
a Conference Advisory Action asking the General Service Board of trustees to
undertake a feasibility study on the possible methods by which sobriety chips
and medallions might be made available to the Fellowship, and to report its
findings to an ad hoc committee of delegates.
The ad hoc committee met prior to the
1993 Conference, for several full days of discussion and deliberation, and in
turn presented its report and recommendations on the Conference floor. After
discussion, the Conference approved two of five recommendations: 1) that the
use of sobriety coins and medallions is a matter of local autonomy and not one on
which the Conference should record a definite position; and 2) that it is not
appropriate for AA World Services or the Grapevine to produce or license the
production of sobriety chips/medallions.
In substance, the ad hoc committee
report said: “We began to see that the issue is
‘What is best for AA as a whole’ and not ‘Does the Fellowship want AA sobriety
chips/medallions?’ or ‘Can AA produce sobriety chips/medallions?’”
The committee did not focus on the use
of sobriety chips/medallions – groups and individuals are free to use them if
they wish. The question is whether it is best for AA as a whole to have a
sobriety chip/medallion with the AA name on it authorized and/or issued by an
Some of the comments made during the
Traditions part of the discussion included:
Tradition – At the heart of the matter is unity . . .
Tradition – Therein lies our solution. Where is our ultimate authority and
where is our center? Is it internal or external – principles arising from a
power greater than people, or values of the world? We must keep in mind that
this is also the place where Bill W. points out that ‘. . . the good is sometimes the enemy of the best.’
Tradition – We were reminded that we are a self-correcting Fellowship . . .
We felt that it is time for the whole Fellowship to get back to the simplicity
and basis of our message.
Tradition makes it clear that we must separate the spiritual from the
material. Keeping in mind that any action we take could affect AA as a whole .
Tradition – The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, The Twelve Steps and Twelve
Traditions, AA Comes of Age, and The Twelve Concepts for World Service’ – are
the basic message, the core message of AA. Everything else is commentary on the
basic message: all literature published, comments and sharing at meetings, even
the Grapevine, is a sort of national commentary. Could chips/medallions be
another form of commentary, another form of a pamphlet?
Tradition calls on us to ‘divide the spiritual from the material.’ Money is
not a valid consideration in the question of whether or not litigation should
be brought against misusers of our logo since AA is not in the business of
making money. Similarly, the fear that others would be making money off our
logo does not hurt the Fellowship on a fundamental level. How do we let go of
this tiger we have by the tail? . . . We are at the tip of the iceberg of litigation
right now . . . We went many, many years without lawsuits. To continue on this
path threatens to keep our focus on money and property instead of allowing our
view to widen spiritually.
Tradition reminds us ‘Experience has often warned us that nothing can so
surely destroy our spiritual heritage as futile disputes over property, money
Eleventh Tradition – explicitly warns against the sensationalism that
follows litigation. It is essentially negative attention and puts the
Fellowship at risk.
Tradition – Humility is the key, working from the internal to the external,
from the smaller to the larger, from ‘I’ to ‘We,’ in a spirit of humility and
trust. What course of action will keep us on the path of spirituality? . . .
“The committee spent a great length of
time in the discussion of the Warranties. Warranty Five states:
“‘Practically all societies and
governments feel it necessary to inflict personal punishment upon individual
members for violations of their beliefs, principles or laws. Because of its
special situation. Alcoholics Anonymous finds this practice unnecessary. When
we of AA fail to follow sound spiritual principles, alcohol cuts us down.
Therefore, no humanly administered system of penalties is needed. This unique
condition is an enormous advantage to us all, one on which we can fully rely
and one which we should never abandon by a resort to the methods of personal
attack and punishment. . . .
” ‘In case the AA name should be
misapplied . . . it would of course be the duty of our General Service
Conference to press for the discontinuance of such a practice – always short,
however of public quarreling about the matter. . . It was recognized that a
public lawsuit is a public controversy, something in which our Tradition says
we may not engage.’
“The chips/medallions and trademark
questions were dealt with as separately as possible. The committee felt that a
distinction could be drawn between the two in terms of their respective
significance to AA. The trademark (logo) is the embodiment of the AA name. The
significance of its shape is described in AA Comes of Age, page 139: ‘The
circle stands for the whole world of AA, and the triangle stands for AA’s Three
Legacies of Recovery, Unity, and Service . . . The priests and seers of
antiquity regarded the circle enclosing the triangle as a means of warding off
spirits of evil, and AA’s circle and triangle of Recovery, Unity, and Service
has certainly meant all of that to us and much more.’
“Medallions, on the other hand, are not
universally considered an embodiment of the Fellowship as such. Many stories
are told about the role that the coins play in an individual’s continuing
sobriety: the coins act as symbolic recognition of the length of sobriety. They
are not the sobriety itself and any attempt to make medallions more than a
symbol may lead perilously towards ego-inflation, self-glorification, rather
than ego-deflation (see Tradition Twelve).
“The committee felt that the desire to
protect the unique meaning of AA’s symbol is at the foundation of litigation,
as well as the fear of the trivialization of the mark. But despite the
vehemence with which we feel ‘ownership’ of the symbol, we suspect that the
belief that we (or anyone) can ‘possess’ the symbol is a fallacy.
“It actually works against the
foundation of the Steps that lead us to sobriety. Ownership necessarily
involves control and to argue over that control through litigation takes the
focus away from the fact that we are ultimately powerless. We can own the
meaning of the symbol, and if someone uses the graphic, our meaning will not be
diminished, as long as we keep the principles it represents in sight.
“The committee finally questioned the
goals of litigation, what would actually be gained from a lawsuit. We suspect
that the harm done internally as a result of litigation would be far worse than
the harm others could do to our ‘property’ from the outside. At the base of
this approach is the trust that is the foundation of AA. It is our trust that
AA principles will work to protect our name, just as our trust in God is the
foundation of our program and of our lives. Warranty Five says that we can ‘. .
. confidently trust AA opinion, public opinion, and God Himself to take care of
Alcoholics Anonymous. . . ”
“Concept Seven states ‘[The Conference]
Charter itself is not a legal document. . . it relies instead upon the force of
tradition. . . for its final effectiveness.’
“To us, the fear that the incorporation
of the symbol by others outside the Fellowship would somehow detract from the
significance of the symbol is really unfounded. No one outside the Fellowship
can detract from AA’s strength if we stick to the Steps, Traditions and
Concepts, which unite us.
“The registered trademarks, service
marks and logos are symbols of our spiritual Fellowship, Alcoholics Anonymous,
and should be treated as such.
“The General Service Conference is a
living entity. From the group conscience will eventually emerge an expression
of the will of a loving Power greater than ourselves proven to be firmly linked
to the Traditions and Warranties, keeping us safe for as long as we are
The ad hoc committee report was debated
on Tuesday and Thursday of Conference week, and the subject of AA coins and
medallions came up again during a final sharing session on Friday. The
chairperson of the AAWS Board made the following statement at that time: “The
AAWS Board will immediately begin a thorough review of its policies regarding
our marks, will do everything possible to avoid initiating litigation, and will
prepare a revised policy statement to be ready for next year’s Conference.”
Immediately after the Conference, the
General Service Board accepted AAWS’s recommendation to discontinue protecting
the circle and triangle symbol as one of AA’s registered marks. And by early
June, the trustees reached substantial unanimity in support of AAWS’s statement
that, to avoid the suggestion of association or affiliation with outside goods
and services, AA World Services, Inc. would phase out the “official” or “legal”
use of the circle and triangle.
If you’re wondering how to identify
Conference-approved literature in the future, it will carry the words “This is
AA General Service Conference-approved literature.” As pieces of literature are
due for reprinting, the symbol will be deleted; and new materials will carry
only the Conference-approved wording.
Like the Serenity Prayer and the
slogans, which have never had official recognition, the circle and triangle
will most likely continue to be used widely for many AA purposes. The difference
from earlier practice is that its official use to denote Alcoholics Anonymous
materials will be phased out.
material is adapted from the August-September issue of the GSO newsletter Box
4-5-9; portions of the ad hoc committee report are taken from the Final Report
of the 1993 General Service Conference.)
Copyright © The
AA Grapevine, Inc. December 1993