A Short History of Street Signs

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Published: 10th March 2009
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Have you ever been driving down a busy freeway, seen a plethora of road signs, and wondered where they all came from? Maybe not, but the history of street signs is very interesting and will make for great cocktail conversation.

street signs are used to impart information. The very first street signs where not really signs at all. They were massively tall columns built by the Romans. These columns allowed travelers to know how far they were from Rome and what direction they should travel. These tall stone towers were called milestones.


During the Middle Ages street signs became more advanced. Many intersections in European countries had many signs that pointed the way to certain cities and towns. Some of these signs also noted the distance to certain towns.


The use of street signs became more formalized and popular when the first automobiles hit the road. Drivers needed signs to tell them where they were going, how to get there and far away they were. The Italian Touring Club, in 1895, was the first organized group to petition for better road signs for drivers.


In 1908 the International Road congress met in Rome to discuss signage on European roads. Out of this meeting came four pictorial signs that were to be displayed noting road conditions. The first four road signs in modern times were the "bump", "curve", "intersection", and "railroad crossing" signs. These four signs constituted the first European road sign system.


The European road sign system was the basis for the American sign system. By the 1960's America was using international symbols to depict road conditions, speed limits, and other travel information for drivers. Most countries now use pictorial symbols to help international travels navigate with few problems. A standard set of international pictorial symbols have been developed for most road conditions and speed limits.


Modern travelers can also see many electronic signs along roadways. These signs can flash pictures or words and can be instantly updated by computer to reflect changing conditions. In America these electronic signs are even used to alert travelers to potential dangers and give travelers information. Whenever an Amber Alert, an alert for a missing child, is issued these signs flash the information to drivers who may be able to help.

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