The Fascinating History of Traffic Signs

Are you wondering what the origin of traffic signs is? Learn all about the history of road signs with this article.

The Fascinating History of Traffic Signs

If there’s one thing everyone universally hates, it’s traffic.

If you stop to think about how many stops you make on your daily commute to work or even a quick run to the grocery store, then you probably know just how frustrating it can be to catch every red light.

But if you’ve ever looked around at the urban jungle and wondered what the origin of all these signs and symbols all over the place mean, then you’re not alone. So just where did our modern traffic signs get their origin?

The ancient Romans are responsible for building the first roads for the faster transfer of soldiers and supplies. They even installed mile markers at certain intervals to indicate the distance to Rome.

Modern traffic signs wouldn't be implemented and standardized until the early 1900s.

The history of transportation wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the traffic signs that guide our everyday lives.

The rest of this article will discuss both the ancient and more recent history of traffic signs as well as the impact that different civilizations had on our transportation history.

The First Roads in Ancient Rome

Unsurprisingly, the first roads ever build were conceived by the Romans, who wanted to establish a more efficient way of moving people and goods.

Whether on horseback or in carts pulled by oxen, the Romans knew how to travel in style, and roads became a necessity for travel. The very first known road was the Via Appia, built in 312 B.C. to ease the flow of traffic.

The first road signs on this road were signs indicating who was responsible for maintaining specific sectors of the road. The Romans also installed mile markers denoting the distance away from Rome.

Without bicycles or automobiles to get people from place to place, there was no need for modern road signs until technology advanced further.

Automobiles and Road Signs

It’s not clear exactly who is responsible for the invention of the automobile, but in the late 1800s, when these ‘fast’ moving vehicles began to hit the roads, a new need was born so that wealthy car owners didn’t get lost. Necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case, the need was road signs.

Without signs indicating where to go, people were getting lost as they travelled further afield away from home. One of the earliest programs that tried to establish a baseline for what signs would be used was envisioned by the Italian Touring Club just before the dawn of the 20th century.

In the early 1900s, the Congress of International Touring Organizations, located in Paris at the time, began seriously considering the need for standardized signs.

Almost 10 years later in 1909, nine European governments agreed on four signs to be used across the countries. Meanwhile, in America at the same time, the American Automobile Association was recognizing and attempting to address the issue of road signs.

By 1905, the Buffalo Automotive Club began installing a network of road signs in New York State. Following suit, the Automotive Club of California added signs around San Francisco.

Despite cars still being a luxury item, automotive companies were still in high demand to produce road signs for wealthy car owners, leading to many places around the U.S. having multiple signs of different design in a single area.

These signs were originally made from wood mounted on iron bars. Detroit surprisingly holds the record for the first stop sign, with the 2x2 sheet of metal installed in 1915.

Standardization of Road Signs

Believe it or not, different governments in different states of the U.S. couldn’t agree on how to standardize road signs across the country.

At the time, people were only travelling at slow speeds and were expected to pay attention for oncoming traffic themselves.

In the 1920s, however, with automobiles becoming more accessible to middle-class Americans and people travelling farther than ever, the need for a standardized system became apparent.

Three men, namely W.F. Rosenwald, J.T. Donaghey, and A.H. Hinkle took it upon themselves to travel through several states to establish the best way to standardize road signs.

When they reported their findings in 1923 at the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments, the organization agreed upon the shape, size, and manufacturing specifications of road signs.

Over time, these signs adopted their distinctive colors and shapes that would instantly communicate information to a driver without them having to take their eyes off the road for long.

In addition, rather than using sturdy wooden signs, modern road signs would come to be designed from steel, aluminum, or plywood so that they would break on impact, causing less harm to any vehicle or driver that hits them.

Signs for wildlife would be included much later in the 1950s to warn drivers to be on the lookout for wildlife that frequented the area.

The First Traffic Light

The first traffic light was developed by railroad engineer J.P. Knight and was installed by the Houses of Parliament in 1869. The gas-powered light exploded, killing a police officer and halting its development.

So while the Brits technically beat everyone to the punch on this one, the first permanent traffic light wouldn’t be installed until 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio.

The light, surprisingly enough, was red and green much like our modern ones, but it only faced two ways. Police officers managed traffic through side streets.

Final Thoughts

The history of traffic signs, as it turns out, doesn’t go back as far as you might think.

While the idea of automobiles has been around for centuries, it was only in the late 1800s that signs were really considered necessary for driver safety.

Automobiles were just too slow and too exclusive to the wealthy for there to be a need for standardization.

In the 1920s, however, steps were being taken to standardize the system of road signs, including the shape, size, and manufacturing specifications.

So the next time you get stuck at a stop sign, consider just how many years of innovation it took for people to arrive on a simple red octagon.