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A quick history of signs

January 11, 2012 | Categories: Signage & Wayfinding

From the earliest fringes of human history to the current day, mankind has always needed some form of signage to aid in the process of wayfinding. Ancient sailors used the stars to follow their ocean routes, medieval generals lit signal fires to guide their soldiers and modern supermarkets have signs directing customers to specific lines to reduce the time spent waiting in queue.

Perhaps the first official "signs" to be constructed were on English public houses in medieval times. In 1393, King Henry passed a law that stated "Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale." These signs were meant to aid in the navigation of interlocking streets and passageways. Of course, such messages had been displayed much earlier in history, but this was the first instance of signs being directly required by law.

Signs are meant to provide public guidance to the average traveler, and the Romans placed markers all over their empire to let a sojourner know the exact distance between locations. Street signs were the evolution of this process, but the invention of the car in the late 19th century sparked the need for a whole new dimension of traffic and advertising signs. Because of this, neon signs were the next innovation in the sign industry. Neon itself was discovered relatively recently in 1898, but the evolution of neon signs dates back to 1855 when the Geissler tube was created, enabling gas placed inside to emit a low sheen. In 1910, Frenchman Georges Claude discovered the effect of placing neon inside of a Geissler tub, and the first so-called "neon lamp" was created. Claude eventually brought his invention to the United States in 1923, and this was the catalyst to the development of modern sign advertising featuring newer materials like metal and plastic.The invention of LED lights and digital technology in the late 20th century again revolutionized the market, changing the focus from fixed messages to portable posts that could be continually updated and modified.

Adaptable wayfinding products are critical to crowd control policies today, as most businesses are required by law to post signs directing people to handicapped access, information facilities or even bathrooms. The history of signage proves the importance of clear and informative displays, and signs will continue to evolve as time presses onwards.

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