We use signatures every day, treating it as a trivial action, and not giving much thought to it.
Why should we? We have used them since we were kids, trying to figure out our own scribbles. Signatures are now ubiquitous, and we don’t think about them, simply because we are so used to them.
But if we did stop and think somewhere, we would be dumbfounded as to how affixing a few scratches on paper is taken to mean our consent for anything that has been written. We would think how and when we decided that this was the way we were going to prove our approval of anything. There should be a date for this, yes?
The truth is, we started using signatures a really long time ago.
Signatures are believed to have been derived from one of the first modes of communication after speech – symbols. Symbols have been widely used by prehistoric humans and the first crude signatures, done for the purpose we use them now, would have been made about 30,000 years ago.
First signatures? Hand stencils, dated 13000 to 9000 years ago, Cueva de la Manos, Argentina Image Source
The oldest, most popular symbols in prehistoric times were cave paintings and rock art. These means of communication sometimes had individual marks that signalled that they had all been done by the same person. These were perhaps how the messages were authenticated, even. Similar patterns across regions, unique designs that stood out from the rest, these were arguably the first signatures.
Mesopotamian limestone cylinder seal and its impression, invented around 3500 BC in Mesopotamia, Modern day Iraq. Image Source
Eventually, by the time the Bronze Age had begun, symbols helped humans develop the first writing systems. Historians have observed that writing emerged in many different cultures in this period. Some of the earliest written communication methods happen to be the Sumerian cuneiforms, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Cretan hieroglyphics, Chinese logographs, and the script of the Olmecs in Mesoamerica. The Sumerians, in particular, authenticated their writings by using seals applied into their clay tablets.
It was Iron Age by the time we got to our first alphabets. The Phoenician alphabet gave rise to Greek and Aramaic which led to the development of the major writing systems that spread to Western Asia and Africa and Europe. They became the foundations for a majority of modern languages.
Signature of the ancient Greek vase-painter and potter Exekias, who was active in Athens roughly between 545 BC and 530 BC. Image Source
The earliest handwritten signatures that were used to authenticate documents were observed during the rule of Roman emperor Valentinian III, in the year 439 AD. The practice of adding subscripto to authenticate wills began around this period as well. A subscripto is a short handwritten sentence at the end of the document that says the signer has subscribed to the contents of the document. This practice of signing documents with a similar declaration and the form of using one’s own name to represent the signature can be attributed to this exact time.
Since then, written or printed communication (thanks to Gutenberg’s press) continued to be the norm till the second half of the nineteenth century. This was during the Industrial Revolution, and it changed the way we lived. Some of the inventions of this period are the foundations of our modern world – the telephone, steam engine, airplane, and automobile. With regards to communication, the invention of Morse code, first used in 1844, revolutionised the field and cut short the time it took to pass information from months and weeks to mere seconds.
A morse telegraph, 1837 AD. Image Source
It was from here that the journey of electronic signatures began. In our next blog post, we will be talking about how electronic signatures are becoming legal across the globe.
In the meantime, if you are impatient to learn how modern-day electronic signatures work, try signing a document with one now!