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A history of road signs

One of the aftershocks of a natural disaster is a reminder of how dependent we are on the infrastructure that we’re forced to live without while we repair it. In 2011, Hurricane Irene stirred up a slew of floods in Vermont that flooded roads and effectively cut off several communities from the outside world. Residents found themselves unable to leave their towns, unable to receive supplies, and even begin to rebuild the damaged roads and buildings.

Like most inherited conveniences, we don’t much notice the importance of roads and signage until we don’t have them anymore. Roads are the arteries that keep our society functioning, providing a way to transport people, supplies, ideas, and industry. Signs help make that movement intelligent. Because connecting our communities is such a massive operation, signs provide a universal symbology for direction, warning, order, and measurement.

Measuring distance was the road sign’s first function. The earliest road signs were milestones; they were erected at intervals alongside a road (usually a mile or increments of a mile, as their name suggests) to signal to travelers their distance travelled, or the distance ahead of them before the next settlement. The earliest of milestones were commissioned by the Caesars of Ancient Rome. The central milestone was called MilliariumAureum, situated in Rome and marking the beginning of all roads. Thus the phrase: all roads lead to Rome.

The invention of the automobile at the end of the 19th century was what really revolutionized both roads and signage. The speed and heft of motorized vehicles (and consequentially, their hazardousness) necessitated that signs take on the task of managing a road’s safety, by both issuing warnings and regulations.

The problem with early road signs, however, was their lack of cohesion. Since cars were expensive and rare (Ford assembly lines began to help popularize them in 1913), most cars were used by the wealthy for entertainment and convenience. These drivers formed clubs, and these clubs created their own signage. The result was a proliferation of road signs in all kinds of different cheap rolex replica conventions. No two colors, shapes, sizes, messages, or placements were quite alike. Given the fact that traffic signs need to be instantly understood by drivers, these mixed messages created confusion and danger, particularly when traveling through an unfamiliar area, or at night.

In 1922, three men, W.F. Rosenwald, J. T. Donaghey, and A. H. Winkle traveled the country observing different needs for regulation and signage. After their investigation, they reported their findings at the 1923 Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments and helped catalyze a plan for uniform traffic signs.

In the decade that followed, several versions of signs were tested and discarded like black and white stop signs and yellow traffic signals. But others stuck, like diamond-shaped danger signs and the octagonal stop sign. In 1934, the first Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) was drafted. It addressed signs, marking, signals, legal issues, locations, and maintenance, among other issues. The MUTCD is still used today as the authority of road standards and traffic devices, although it has been amended numerous times to fit changing technology, infrastructure, and traffic patterns.
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The MilliariumAureum was the central milestone of the 62,000 miles of Ancient Roman roads (via University of Chicago).