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The State of Electric Signage, Part I

If we know what this segment of our industry is all about, we may learn to profit from it.

By Johnny Duncan

With such a broad term as electric signage, it is easy to see how people will associate neon, LED and fiber optics with electric signage. Although all of these fit under the electric umbrella, to understand the term electric signage, it is first necessary to determine the basic core or what is it that powers (pun intended) this segment of the industry.

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  • Electricity permitted signs to be illuminated by light shining onto them, but the real revolution occurred when light bulbs were used to form the images and words on signs. Light bulbs flashing on and off made new demands on the attention of passersby. Light bulbs blinking in sequence could also simulate movement. Add this property to the mix, and a dramatic transformation of American streets resulted.

    In the beginning
    The advent of the twentieth century coincided with the coming of electricity, which gave signs light and, later, movement. Illuminated signs were not unknown before electricity. An advertisement printed about 1700 mentioned a nighttime sign lit by candles, and in 1840 the legendary showman P.T. Barnum built a huge sign illuminated by gas. But electricity was safer and cheaper than candles, kerosene and gas. Its widespread use gave signs a prominence they retain today.

    Moving signs were not unknown prior to the advent of electricity, for wind-driven signs had made their appearance in the nineteenth century. But electricity gave signs an unparalleled range of motion. This movement added yet another element to the life of the street.

    In 1882, Edison displayed the first electric advertising sign at the London International Electric Exposition. It spelled out "EDISON." The first electric sign company, the Federal Electric Company, an offshoot of Commonwealth Edison Co., was founded in 1900. By 1906, there were some 75,000 electric signs in the United States. Mass-produced signs, with on and off flashing bulbs, were introduced in 1909.

    The first electric sign erected in New York, on the site of the present Flatiron Building, was the well-known Manhattan Beach electric sign, first lighted May 1892. It was on the uptown wall of the old Cumberland Hotel at Twenty-third Street and Broadway. However, this display was the forerunner of all the wonderful advertisements, which have since adorned the Great White Way. By the use of those somewhat primitive electric bulbs this sign flashed its story - "Manhattan Beach - Swept by Ocean Breezes." It was 50' x 80’ and used 1,457 lamps.

    One of the most interested spectators of this sensational new kind of advertising was H.J. Heinz, and as he sat in his hotel watching the electric light message, a great idea formed in his mind. The following day he communicated with O. J. Gude, and not long afterward another electrical sign dominated the same spot. A huge green pickle flashed on and off, and some of the 57 varieties were featured in electric lights.

    A quick history lesson
    Sometimes by knowing where the roots of a process or product originated, one can understand where and how to use it in the future. Here is a quick snapshot of how the electric sign segment of the industry developed:

    • In 1910, inventor Georges Claude produced the first neon light in France, which he displayed at the Grand Palais in Paris. His invention was patented in 1915, and in 1923 the first commercial neon sign came to America at a Packard automobile dealership in Los Angeles. Red was the only color available.
    • Also in 1923, a Times Square animated sign containing 20,000 lights was seen by 21 million people in one month and by 1924, there were 150,000 lit signs in the US and the sign industry grossed $50,000.
    • In 1926, Erich Koch invented fluorescent lamps and by 1929, the sign industry exceeded $18 million dollars.
    • In 1939, a survey showed that the sign maker was also the sign designer of 95% of the signs installed and in 1942 metal signs were banned because of the war effort.
    • By 1945, signage is designed to function for cars traveling 30-40 miles per hour with several distractions and in 1946 Douglas Leich erects the first smoke ring, blowing “Camel” sign.
    • In 1951, internally lit signs outpace neon signs and by 1959 the growth in number and size of signs causes many municipalities to regulate signs.
    • In 1971, Attorneys Ewald and Mandelkr publish Street Graphics, a model municipal sign codes book and by 1973 sign codes become common across America.

    Where we are
    In the “old days” it was easy to create a sign and install it in any manner you deemed fit. Because of fires, injuries, congested streets and many other issues, it became necessary for certain guidelines or sign codes to be developed.

    Each jurisdiction has adopted its own sign code. Whether it is an existing code or one drawn up by the city or county authorities, they are meant to serve as safety measures for the public. They also act as a guideline implemented by environmentalists and so-called beautification experts.

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    Whether you are installing fluorescent back-lit signs, LED or neon, keeping up to date on the latest government regulations and codes is the best way to assure that your sign creation will be installed correctly the first time. The placement and the physical parameters of your sign are controlled either by a section of the zoning code or by a separate "sign code." Sign codes are written to protect the public health, safety, and welfare while remaining reasonable.

    Two main categories of governmental regulations of electric signs are:

    • Material, electrical and structural
    • Land use or zoning issues

    Material, electrical and structural
    An electric or internally illuminated sign is wired to receive power from an electrical utility source and must meet certain weight and wind load standards. Also, most sign companies laboratory test the electrical features on a sign. The laboratories used for testing include Electrical Testing Laboratory and Underwriters Laboratories. A label from a testing laboratory means that the sign has met electrical standards.

    Land use or zoning issues
    There are different ways to handle zoning issues if this ever becomes a sticky point for you. Many jurisdictions are amenable to a variance that would permit the renovation or retrofit of a building façade in order to enhance a district theme. In trying to help the customer overcome certain variances, you may try illustrating the benefit the sign will bring to the land-use planning scheme.

    For example, if the customer is in an older building, point out how your sign will contribute to the rejuvenation of the area as a whole. You also may want to point out that enforcement of the code may create a signing deficiency in that the sign cannot be detected in time for drivers trying to find your business to safely respond under existing roadway design and designated speeds.

    Where we are going
    Knowing the requirements is necessary to profit in the electric sign segment of our industry. The next step in knowing what it is your customer wants and visualizing what they also see as the final product. Electric signage is one area that can be quite costly to redo if the customer is not satisfied so make sure that everyone is on the same page before jumping into the project.

    Once installed, your electric sign is a semi-permanent fixture on the landscape. Except for some minor routine maintenance (bulb changing, letter changing, etc.), you may never visit the sign again. For example, neon signs can last 50 years, although 20-25 years is more typical. When a neon sign fails, it is not because the gas has "failed," but because the system surrounding it has broken down. The glass tubes have been broken, for example, thus letting the gas escape, or the electrodes or transformers have failed. If the tube is broken, a new one must be made by a highly skilled "glass bender." After the hot glass tube has been shaped, it must undergo "purification" before being refilled with gas.

    The point is get it right the first time and let the customer call you back only for a new sign or as a referral to someone else.

    The possibilities are unlimited in the realm of electric signage. Anywhere your imagination takes you, you can create an electric sign. Sometimes your creativity is what will sell the customer on using you for their signage needs.

    In Part II, we will explore in more detail some of the installation techniques used for electric signs.

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