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McDOT: Bicycling craze spawns modern road signs

Published: Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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What does a tire company have to do with road signs?

Perhaps you enjoyed some bike riding experiences this summer in McHenry County or elsewhere. A fun activity promoting good health for sure, but did you know that bicycles spawned the modern day road-sign system used throughout the U.S.?

When Benjamin Franklin Goodrich died in 1888, the company he founded helped America get around easier, faster and more comfortably with the development of the pneumatic tire. It was the rubber tire that helped fuel the American bicycling craze in the 1890s.

These “city folk” bicyclists now had the ability to explore the unknown countryside. There was no satellite navigation. Maps were of a larger scale and rarely showed country roads. As such, getting lost was a common part of the adventure.

Seizing an advertising stroke of genius, the B.F. Goodrich Tire Co. took the initiative to create road signs for the traveling public.

The earliest road signs were made from sheets of metal with dimples in them to create letters and numbers. Later versions were coated with porcelain and painted bright colors to help them stand out and last longer. Warning signs were typically round with a red background and white lettering for things such as railroad crossings. Signs giving directions also were circular but had a blue background. Arrows would point in the direction of a town, with the town name and distance in miles printed on them. Lastly, all of these signs had the words “Goodrich” on top and “Tires” on the bottom to help promote the rubber-tire maker.

From 1910 to 1917, porcelain signs were installed on roadways throughout the U.S. Although originally intended for bicyclists, they were helpful for the new mode of transportation that was just getting started – the automobile.

B.F. Goodrich also started publishing maps known as Goodrich Route Books. These early road maps were specific to a particular area, and included the location of the various signs along the routes (the first you-are-here-type maps). These remained in use until the oil companies started making maps for, of course, advertising.

With the start of World War I, new signs stopped being made to save the metal for the war effort. By the end of World War I in 1918, it was estimated that as many as 10,000 of these road signs were in use throughout the United States. The signs served an important need of the day and are now hard to find. The McHenry County Historical Society has a collection in Union, and you can still find a few posted on some of the private farms around McHenry County.

With mass production of the automobile taking off in the 1920s, the amount of travel around America increased substantially.

With more travelers, the need to have more signs was quickly realized, as well as the need to standardize the signs so that drivers would know that a round yellow sign in McHenry County meant the same thing in Iowa or Wisconsin.

As this was a nationwide issue, the federal government stepped in to make sure everyone looking at a sign saw the same message. The ads were removed, and a national standard was established – the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devises is still used today.

Everything from the sign’s shape, color, size and lettering are standardized.

Today, the McHenry County Division of Transportation has a full-service sign shop for the fabrication, installation and maintenance of all roadway signs in the manual. The sign inventory maintained by the MCDOT has more than 10,000 signs installed throughout the county highway system. Coincidentally, that number is as many as Goodrich Tires had installed throughout the entire U.S. in the early 1900s.

With so many signs to maintain, innovation at MCDOT continues. The color material used is some of the most reflective material designed to withstand the fading caused by sunlight. When signs do need to be replaced, the sheeting can be stripped off, saving the blank metal for a new sign. Signs also can be enhanced with blinking lights to make them stand out more. These blinking lights are usually powered by solar energy, using LEDs since they last longer.

So, the next time you go for a bike ride, know that you are participating in a part of history that has given rise to the modern road signs used on highways today.

• Andy Rose is the maintenance sign shop supervisor for the McHenry County Division of Transportation.

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