Signatures through the ages

Sign here please, mister Columbus.”
“Certainly, no problem.”
“I’m sorry sir, but what is that? No-one can make sense of that.”
“Wonderful! It will give the future historians something to ponder.”

Signature of Columbus
Columbus’ Signature

While to this day nobody knows what Christopher Columbus’ signature really means, there is a lot we do know about signatures throughout history. Let’s take a quick look at signatures through the ages.

3000 BC

While the first known civilizations might not have had an alphabet, they did write. The Sumerians and Egyptians used symbols to jot down anything on walls or clay tablet. You have probably heard of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Egyptian Hieroglyphs

These symbols were also used to create the first version of a signature.

The Alphabet

Around 1050 BC Phoenicians started using the first alphabet. This alphabet consisting of only consonants made its way through Europe and North Africa. The ancient Greeks felt it was missing something and added vowels to the alphabet.

Eventually, this evolved into the Latin alphabet we know today. We know the Romans used this alphabet to sign their names around 439 AD but the trend did not stick quite yet.

The very first signature by a known historical figure wasn’t signed until 1069 in Medieval Spain by nobleman “El Cid”.

In the meantime

Another form of authentication we see throughout history is the seal. The oldest seals found date back to ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt but more iconic seal must be the ones in red wax. Placed with a stamp or, even better, a ring kings and bishops started to place their seal of approval around the 9th century but by 1300 all kinds of wealthy folk had caught on.

A sealed letter
Wax seals

Statute of Frauds

In 1677 the Parliament of England declared the signature an official authorization of contracts in the Statute of Frauds. This kicked off the widespread use of the signature. Everyone who was anyone (and was literate) started signing their names under contracts.

John Hancocks signature under document
John Hancock's signature

John Hancock’s signature under the Declaration of Independence

Oh technology

As with anything, technological advancements revolutionized the signature. In the 1980s the fax machine was what everyone used to send over signed documents. Not too long after the first e-signatures were placed. In 2000 the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act was signed which declared e-signatures legally binding.

Great news for us. Because 2014 will be mentioned in the signature history books as the year in which the first SignRequest was sent.

The future of signing

The signature might not have changed much in the past few hundred years, technology has proven itself a catalyst for change. We can only imagine what signing will look like in a few decades from now. Maybe we will be authenticating contracts with fingerprints or DNA samples? Will our children beg their idols for a scan of their iris instead of an autograph? Or will the good old signature stay around for another few hundred years?

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