The signature has been a powerful symbol throughout history. While its meaning has remained the same throughout centuries and across countries, its form has evolved, time and time again. We’re taking a journey through the history of the signature.

Claiming authorship of art or literature was an early use-case. Documenting the exchange of goods and property also became a prominent use of signatures. Contractual obligations and Magna Carta signings came later. Future use-cases remain unknown.

3000 BC: Pictographs

Long before the alphabet was invented, many cultures used pictographs to symbolise different words and concepts. A combination of symbols and pictures, Egyptian hieroglyphics are among some of the most well-known pictographs.

1800-1200 BC: The First Alphabet

The Phoenicians developed the first alphabet, which contained 22 consonants and no vowels. This was later adapted by the Greeks and revised to include vowels.

1069: The First Signature

The first known autograph is written on a Sumerian clay table from 3100 BC by the scribe Gar.Ama. The first signature from a well-known historical figure dates back to 1098, and belongs to Spanish nobleman and military leader El Cid.

1600s: Widespread Use

By the 1600s, signatures written on paper had become commonplace. In 1677, The Statute of Frauds was passed by the Parliament of England, determining that certain contracts must include a signature for them to be legally valid.

1869: The Telegraph

Signatures sent via telegraph became legally accepted.

1980: The Rise of the Fax Machine

While the fax machine was invented in the mid 19th century, its heyday was most certainly in the 1980s. Of course, by the turn of the century many of us carried no small amount of resentment towards the machine — and at the dawn of the digital age it began to take a beating — figuratively, literally, and perhaps most infamously in Office Space. (We feel your pain Peter, Samir, and Michael…)

1999: The eSignature Directive

The eSignature Directive (1999/93/EC) established a Community framework for the use of electronic signatures on electronic contracts in Europe. More than 30 countries implemented the Directive. In 2014, the European Parliament repealed the 1999 ESignature Directive with the goal of creating a more uniform, pan-EU market for electronic transactions.

2000: The Electronic Communications Act

This UK act regulates the provision of cryptographic services and confirms the legal status of electronic signatures. The main purpose of the legislation is to help build confidence in electronic commerce and the technology underlying it by providing for an approvals scheme for businesses and other organisations providing cryptography support services, such as electronic services and confidentiality services.

2003 – Present: The Digital Age and DocuSign

2003 brought the rise of the digital signature with the founding of DocuSign. Today, more than 100 million users in 188 countries complete 62% of documents within one hour using DocuSign.

2016: eIDAS

The eIDAS Regulation went into force on 1st July 2016 having ‘direct effect’—in other words, being mandatory and wholly adopted in all EU member states, with precedent over any conflicting national laws. It replaced the eSignature Directive (1999/93/EC) and establishes an EU-wide legal framework for electronic signatures and a range of newly defined electronic “trust services”.

For more information on signatures in the digital age, click here.

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