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The history of signatures

Signatures Through the Ages: Tracing the Evolution from Seals to E-Signatures

Pooja Patil

Around 3000 BC, the Sumerians and Egyptians pioneered the use of pictures and symbols to convey meaning, marking the beginning of our enduring fascination with signatures. From the earliest pictographs to modern electronic signatures, the concept has evolved over time. Nowadays, it's commonplace for everyone to have a signature they use for various purposes, from signing legal documents to restaurant receipts and delivery forms. It's interesting to note that a signature is not simply one's regular handwriting, but rather a unique reflection of an individual's personality that carries legal importance.

Signatures can be particularly intriguing when it comes to notable figures, such as influential leaders, artists, and celebrities. For example, a Christmas card signed by Adolf Hitler himself was discovered in 1941. The card was printed on heavy cardstock with a Nazi eagle and swastika imprint in the upper left-hand corner, and the signature in the lower right-hand corner was difficult to decipher. This serves as a testament to the historical significance of signatures and their ability to offer insight into the past.

Hitler's Signed Christmas Card

In this blog, we will explore the history of signatures, including their legal dimensions and cultural influence, so let's dive in!

History of Signatures 

"The history of signatures is the history of civilization." - Stephen Greenblatt

Signatures have had a long history of use in Europe, with evidence of their existence dating back to 3000 BC. However, the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 is a notable example highlighting the significance of signatures. This document was signed by English barons who compelled King John to agree to a charter of rights documented in the Magna Carta. Additionally, the legal significance of signatures was established in 1677 with the English parliament's enactment of the Statute of Fraud Act. This act required that wills, contracts, and grants be written and signed to prevent fraudulent activities.

  • 3500 BC: The first signature

    Around 3500 BC, the Sumerians introduced the concept of signatures through the use of seals. These seals, which were typically attached to small round cylinders about an inch in length, would be pressed onto wet clay to authenticate documents. The practice of using seals continued for centuries, and even one of England's most significant documents, the Magna Carta, was "signed" with the King's seal. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the act of signing refers to putting a seal or signet on a letter or document to identify or authenticate it.

  • 1800-1200 BC: Invention of alphabets and vowels

    From 1800 to 1200 BC, the Phoenicians created the first known alphabet, consisting of 22 consonants but no vowels. It was not until the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet around 1200 BC that vowels were added to the system, creating the first true alphabet with both consonants and vowels.

  • 600 BC: Invention of the Latin alphabet

    The Latin alphabet was developed around 600 BC, following the Greek alphabet. This alphabet has been widely used by various countries across the globe throughout history.

  • AD 57: Hanko Seal

    In AD 57, Japan introduced the Hanko Seal, also known as Inkan, as a carved stamp used to delegate authority. Although the Japanese government is reportedly phasing out the use of Hanko in many situations, it is still widely used and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Individuals and corporations can choose from three common types of Hankos:

    • Jitsu-in: Used while signing a contract.
    • Ginko-in: Used for financial transactions.
    • Mitome-in: used for everyday tasks such as receiving parcels or stamping invoices.
  • 1069: Earliest known signature

    The first recorded signature of a famous historical figure is attributed to El Cid, a medieval Spanish nobleman and military commander, in 1069.

  • The 1600s: Widespread use of signatures

    During the 1600s, the usage of signatures became more widespread as they were commonly used on paper documents. In 1677, the Parliament of England mandated that certain contracts must be signed to be legally binding, further cementing the importance of signatures in legal documents.

  • 1867: Statute of Frauds

    In 1867, England enacted the “Statute of Frauds,” which required specific transactions to have a “note or memorandum in writing” that was “signed by the parties” in order to be legally valid. This statute significantly impacted U.S. commercial law and served as the precursor to the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1844 posed a challenge in authenticating electronically transmitted messages. However, by 1867, telegraphed signatures met the legal requirements for “written signatures” under the Statute of Frauds, marking a significant legal victory for electronic commerce. This tradition persisted with the acceptance of telephonic signatures in 1918, audio recordings in 1972, and fax machines in 1988.

  • 1869: Acceptance of digital signatures via telegraph

    In 1869, before the advent of computers and captcha, businesses were using Morse code and telegrams to communicate and sign contracts. To protect these documents, laws had to be implemented. The New Hampshire Supreme Court accepted digital signatures via telegraph in the same year, declaring that it made no difference whether a signature was made with a regular ink pen or electronically.

  • 20th Century: The Rise of the Fax Machine

    During the 20th century, the fax machine rose to prominence as a popular and efficient way to transmit images of documents with legally binding signatures over phone networks. The word "fax" is derived from "facsimile," and the technology underwent several iterations over the years. The fax machine was preceded by the Telautograph, invented by Elisha Gray in 1888 as a means of sending signatures across distances. The technology evolved to include wireless capabilities, with Richard H. Ranger sending a picture of President Calvin Coolidge from New York to London using the Photoradiogram in 1924. This led to the development of Radiofax, which is still used for transmitting maritime weather maps.

    Additionally, the Hellschreiber, invented by Rudolf Hell, allowed for data to be transferred over long-distance radio using fax technology. Herbert E. Ives later invented the Color Facsimile, and in the 21st century, 3D Fax was introduced for scanning and transmitting 3-dimensional data. Despite its numerous twists and turns, fax technology remained widely used until the mid-2000s and is still used today in various contexts. During the 1980s, many courts declared signed documents sent via fax to be legally valid.

  • 2000: ESign Act

    In June 2000, the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (E-SIGN) Act was signed into law by President Clinton after being passed by Congress. This law recognizes the legal validity of electronic signatures and records in both foreign and interstate commerce. It was a major step towards facilitating the use of electronic contracts. Interestingly, President Clinton signed the act both electronically and using a traditional pen and ink method. The E-Sign Act became effective on October 1, 2000, and granted electronic contracts the same legal status as those executed on paper.

Electronic signatures are revolutionizing traditional paperwork

The use of signatures has been a crucial part of human history, serving various purposes such as business transactions, financial management, education, and daily routines. However, with the emergence of advanced technology and new platforms, digital signatures have revolutionized traditional paperwork. Nowadays, eSignatures are essential to business operations and daily activities thanks, in part, to their convenience and security. Following are the top e-signature trends for 2022:

  • Businesses will continue to adopt hybrid work experiences

    As remote and hybrid work becomes increasingly prevalent, businesses are adjusting to this new normal by leveraging electronic signatures to streamline their operations and enhance employee satisfaction. Given the benefits of remote work and the growing demand for flexible job arrangements, it is likely that more and more organizations will adopt hybrid work experiences in the coming years.

Also Read: How Digital Signatures Make your Hybrid Workforce Efficient

  • Global regulations will allow more types of documents to be signed digitally

    The history of signatures illustrates how worldwide regulations have facilitated the use of digital signatures. These regulations are expected to expand the range of documents that can be digitally signed in the near future.

  • Establishment of a more robust identity assessment

    The technological advancements have highlighted the importance of increased security and privacy measures. As digital signatures become more prevalent, it has become necessary to establish more robust identity assessment methods.

  • Traditional form-based processes will convert to intelligent, conversational experiences

    The benefits of digital signatures are clear, and they are transforming how we handle paperwork. As technology advances, we can expect traditional form-based processes to be replaced with more intelligent and conversational experiences through electronic records.

    These trends forecast a promising future for electronic signatures. As per a recent market research report, the digital signature market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 36.1% and reach USD 35.03 billion by 2029. These figures serve as evidence of the continuous evolution of signatures over the years, which is expected to persist in the coming years.

Get DrySign 

As the usage of e-signatures becomes increasingly prevalent, DrySign, an online digital signature solution, is committed to embracing new developments and delivering a wide range of advantages akin to the evolution of traditional signatures. DrySign is a reliable electronic signature platform that offers numerous benefits to users.

  • With DrySign, you can sign documents from anywhere in the world using any electronic device.
  • Using DrySign e-signatures helps to reduce travel time, paper cost, pollution,greenhouse gas emissions, plastic waste, and more.
  • DrySign electronic signatures provide greater security with strong user authentication methods to ensure the authenticity of the signer.
  • DrySign e-signatures comply with specific e-signature laws to avoid legal disputes and ensure the validity of the signed document.
  • Multiple signatories can sign a document electronically through DrySign without any hassle, making it a convenient and efficient option for businesses and individuals alike.

Source: faxauthority.com | bbc.co.uk | fortunebusinessinsights.com

DISCLAIMER: The information on this site is for general information purposes only and is not intended to serve as legal advice. Laws governing the subject matter may change quickly, and Exela cannot guarantee that all the information on this site is current or correct. Should you have specific legal questions about any of the information on this site, you should consult with a licensed attorney in your area.

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