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Holten: Signs of the times

Kevin Holten1 / 2
Holten Cartoon2 / 2

What would we do without signs? There are welcome signs, stop signs, warning signs, billboards, sandwich boards, blinking neon monstrosities and so much more. Most of us would be wandering aimlessly like bison on the prairie or freshman at college were it not for signs.

But do you happen to know who invented the first traffic sign? It was the Romans, of course. Like Greeks, the Romans were pillar fanatics and put them everywhere, holding up buildings, bridges, statues and teetering drunks, so naturally they'd prop them up by roadsides and chisel directions and distances into them so people could get to where they needed to go.

In fact, I think they even had a Department of Pillars, where state employees would sit around and think of other uses for pillars.

"Hey Claudius," Brutus said, "we should put a threshing machine on top of a pillar."

"What's a threshing machine?" Claudius asked.

Initially these "pillar signs" were meant to show the Roman legions where to go and who to conquer next, even as far north as England, and the next thing you know those people became the "Roman Empire" and ruled the modern world, at least at that time, and spent Sunday afternoons watching gladiators battle it out on the gridiron. (Sound familiar?) So that's how important signs are.

Eventually there got to be so many types of signs in the world that it became more confusing than not having signs at all. So some smart people got together and solved the problem by setting the basic patterns of most traffic signs at a 1908 International Road Congress in Rome.

Then automobiles came along in a big way and changed everything and caused chaos to reign once again until another group of smart people got together and agreed upon a European sign system at a 1968 convention in Vienna, with even America adopting most of what they came up with.

But who created the first "advertising" sign? Again, it was probably the Romans and naturally it was for a nightclub.

You see, once the Romans took over England in 43 AD, they set up wine shops everywhere and advertised them by hanging signs out front that featured a painting of a bundle of grapes on it to signify that new wine had been delivered and was ready for sale.

The Romans followed that up by also hanging Chequers signs on taverns to let people know that games like chess and other strategy board games could be played there. Soon all types of businesses followed suit, hanging "picture signs" on storefronts, because the general public was much too stupid to read, and the sign business was born.

Yet the golden age of signage arrived when Georges Claude, a Frenchman, invented the neon sign in 1930 by perfecting the technique of encapsulating gases in an enclosed glass tube and then applying a high voltage electric charge to the tube with electrodes. Not too long after that, Las Vegas began lighting up the night sky and, to this day, it has used up roughly half of the energy on the planet.

When I lived in Los Angeles, I would frequently drive on the Santa Monica freeway, just south of Hollywood, (better known as Hollyweird), and see one of America's most famous signs, the Hollywood sign on the hillside above the city.

Of course it was originally put there as an ad campaign for a suburban housing development called "Hollywoodland" and then somehow managed to become an American icon that has now survived and prospered for decades. "That's Hollywood!" as they say.

I bring up the topic of signs because recently, each morning, a small vehicle driven by a young man has been parking much too close to where I live and playing rap music at decibels exceeding those that might have been reached at Woodstock.

This led me to one day create a simple sign and place it on his windshield, under his windshield wiper, with a quote I once heard that said, "The first sign of maturity is the discovery that the volume knob also turns to the left."

After which I went back inside and popped open a book and the first line I read was a quote by French novelist, essayist, playwright and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus which said, "The need to be right is the sign of a vulgar mind."

Proving that, life is full of all types of signs.

Holten is the manager of The Drill, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at