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The Origin of Signs

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No one is absolutely sure about where signs have originated from or for what purpose they were invented, but it is very likely that the first signs were used for commercial purposes, such as a business sign. The first businesses that most likely adopted the idea of using signs for advertising purposes were the early Roman alehouses, which is a tavern or bar where ale is sold. When the Romans arrived in Britain, in A.D.43, they brought with them many of their customs, some of which included the tavern or wine shop. The Romans would use signs as markers for the wine shops, so that people would be able to easily locate a wine shop amongst the other businesses and houses. The Romans would use a bundle of grapevine leaves, hung on a chain, to signify that fresh wine had been delivered, it was in stock, and ready for sale. Romans also used signs to signify the allowance or prohibition of certain activities. For example, some wine shop owners would also put up a “checkers” sign to signify that games, such as chess, would be allowed in the shop.

Considering just the alphabet itself, the system of using only 22 letters, instead of our present 26-letter system, was being used as early as 1200B.C. It is incredible that the alphabet system, over all those years, has varied by only six letters. Letter styles today would number in the thousands, although only a select few are most often used because of their legibility and clarity. For example, on many public and business signs today, the style Helvetica is used mainly because of its high legibility.

In the nineteenth century, signs were constructed using more simple materials. The materials they used were also more natural, such as wood, as compared to today, where the most common material used is MDF or medium density fiberboard, which is pretty much compacted (medium density) wood fibers. Back then, the most common method of sign constructing was first to construct a wooden panel and then create the letters, which were either painted on or cut out (to make a more 3-D look). After the invention of the incandescent light bulb, it became possible to illuminate signs. The incandescent light bulb was first invented by Humphry Davy, in the early 1800s, and then was later innovated by other people, such as Joseph Wilson Swan, Thomas Alva Edison, Lewis Howard Latimer, and Willis R. Whitney. The process of making signs, using incandescent bulbs, was done by either installing the light bulb behind a glass panel, which was designed to, when illuminated, reveal words or symbols, or by installing the bulb into trough like section, which had been manufactured into the shape of words or symbols.

The invention of neon, which was invented by a Frenchmen named Claude around 1930, is possibly the most significant invention in the history of signs. M. Claude perfected the process of encapsulating gasses in a sealed glass tube and then applying a high voltage electric charge, to illuminate the gasses inside the tube. By changing the types of gasses that were encapsulated in the tubes, one could change the color that tube would glow, with neon, argon, and helium being the main gasses used. He then helped improve his invention by coating the insides of the tubes with a fluorescent powder, to make them glow more vibrantly.

In order for Claude to make his invention better known, he distributed his product throughout many countries in Europe, the Americas, South Africa, and Australia, with his company name being Claude Neon. His product was extremely influential in the making of signs and lasted for about 50 years. Neon was utilized in many popular locations, such as Time Square, almost all of New York City, and Broadway. Although neon was such a popular means of advertisement, today people are leaning more in the direction of high intensity LEDs (light emitting diodes), which are tiny light bulbs.

LEDs have many different uses, such as being used to light up a billboard, and even make what was once motionless with neon into spectacular moving pictures similar to those on you television. LEDs can make moving pictures because, on some signs, the LEDs are all connected to a central computer that sends electrical impulses to the LEDs in such a way that they will light up in certain patterns to create a moving picture, similar to that of a home television.

A new material that revolutionized the market of signs hit the market place in the late 50’s. Acrylic, an amazing material that could consistently be manufactured to a desired thickness and color, could be produced in sheet form, making it ideal for modern sign making. Also, acrylic is a material made from a by-product of oil, also making it the ideal substance to be used. Along with the emergence of acrylics, the term “corporate identity” was the new “name of the game,” so to speak, and acrylic, with its numerous, vibrant colors and its easily reproducible thicknesses, made this material the best for the purpose of the interpretation of a businesses identity. With all the numerous manufacturing possibilities available, through the use of acrylics, and the possibility for being able to have a backlight for a sign, because acrylics are translucent, discreet graphics and customized trademarks or logos could be displayed in such a manner that has never been possible before. During the 60’s and 70’s, the streets of Britain were covered with this innovative material, while older products, such as neon, became a thing of the past.

Using acrylic signs was not always the best thing for the environment, and more often then not it was not the greatest for the user or advertiser either, because sometimes there was much confusion involved. Fortunately, the producers of acrylics started to use more commonsense when manufacturing their products, and acrylics, although still a leading material used in sign making, became even more popular. Acrylics, by the mid 80’s, started to adopt the idea of using three-dimensional options, along with many new color choices, which now included secondary colors as well as primary. Also the utilization of CNC machines allowed the user to incorporate three-dimensional things, along with the option of inlaying, into their initial goal of making their businesses identity better known.

Although the invention of acrylics was a very innovative and useful idea, the invention of the computer went on to further improve the use of such materials. Before computers, all graphics and signs were designed and made entirely by hand, or by the use of hand-held machines, which made it absolutely necessary that the designer or manufacturer had a great amount of skill, talent and training. It is all because of those talented, skillful, and well-trained manufacturers, or designers, that the signs that they created were so incredibly accurate and exact. The computer was about to change all of that, greatly for the better. Although in its first uses, the computer may not have been as incredibly useful and versatile as it is today, but it was still a significant advancement because it enabled the user to consistently reproduce the same results, as well as allowing for a great increase in speed, quality, and the amount of detail possible. Today, computers can be interfaced with production machines to create products in a single process that would make sign makers of past years gasping in amazement.

Along with the advancements in the styles that were incorporated in signs, the materials of signs themselves also have gone through much advancement over the years. In the previous years, materials such as wood, glass, metal, paint, or gold leaf were the only materials that a well-equipped sign making company would need. As of today, not only the number of materials possible, in the making of signs, is extremely large, but also many once used natural products have been replaced by man made products. Wood, which used to be the most frequently used material in the process of making signs, has now been replaced by materials such as cast resin, glass reinforced plastic (GRP), or thermoformed plastic. Fascia boards, however, are now more likely to be made from pre-coated aluminum than from plywood; whereas, in the past the prime material for framed sign written wallboards would have to have been mahogany, but today the most commonly used material, for that purpose, is MDF or medium density fiberboard. Despite all the advancements in materials, classic materials, such as neon, are still quite popular today. Gold leaf is also another product that has survived over the years, even though products such as high gloss paint and other types of foils have been offered as other alternatives, the amazing luster and color of gold cannot be matched.

In the article “The Origin of Signs,” from L. E. Graphics, concludes this topic extremely well. “In the future, there are bound to be new products coming to the market and laser beams, strobes, lenticular displays and holograms are just some of the products now available in the specialized field of three dimensional lighting. But whatever the advancement in sign making materials, the industry is, by its very nature, an industry rich in diverse skills and is likely to remain this way for many years to come.”

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