Electricity was first made commercially available in 1879. Billboards – as we know them today – began in the 1920s, to there was never a moment when you could not illuminate a sign. However, the initial problem was how to do so effectively, as the early lights were not very good. Here’s a run down on the history of lighting billboard signs:
Most rural – and many city – billboards until the 1960s or so utilized “reflective tape”. This product allows you to so see the sign based on the reflection of your headlights off of specially engineered tape that is highly reflective. You can still see these type of signs along rural roads across America. While this product really does work, it requires very expensive materials and installation and it can’t be attached easily to modern vinyl (it was originally stuck to plywood sections). So this type of lighting option is no longer used today.
Many early billboards in the big city were lighted by what would appear to be your household light bulbs. And, as you can expect, this didn’t work well as the lighting was dim and the reliability was low. You will still see these signs in some museums (typically car museums or Route 66 exhibits) but I have not seen one in actual operation in 50 years. The light bulbs typically represented the letters of the sign, so you can imagine how many light bulbs we’re talking here.
An alternative style of sign lighting was the use of bended neon tubes. There are extremely bright and attention-getting but have two huge problems: 1) they are incredible expensive to build and 2) they are incredibly expensive to maintain. Since most people want to change out their ads periodically, that’s impossible as you can’t change out the neon.
This was a definite step-up from the early lighting systems. Quartz lights are very bright and the beam is expansive, but the problem here is the cost of the electricity. Quartz lights burn power at a huge rate. While this type of lighting was popular through the 1970s, once the cost of energy increased, some billboard companies found the lights were costing too much of the sign’s revenue.
Finally, in the 1970s, came the ballasted light and it’s champion: the halogen bulb. While the ballasted feature allowed the power to be greatly reduced, the halogen bulb burns so bright that it offsets that reduction. And the combination of these two is extremely durable and makes it much less expensive to maintain. This has been the standard light of the industry for nearly a half-century.
The difference in lighted and non-lighted signs
So with an effective light source possible for any sign, why would not all signs have lights? There are several reasons:
- Lack of an available power source. You can put the lights on any sign, but it won’t do you any good if you don’t have a power source to turn those lights on. In many rural areas, there is no nearby power line to attach to. And even in the big city, there are times in which there is no way to get the easement to get to the power line.
- Sign cannot afford the power cost. On a billboard that does not rent for much money, the cost of the electricity and repair on lights can be crushing. So sometimes you elect not to put the signs on the sign simply because of money. And that does not even include the initial cost of putting lights on the sign.
- Advertisers that are not open at night on rural roads. We all know that McDonald’s, truck stops and motels are all open at night, but there are a lot of advertisers that are not open in the dark, such as attorneys and banks. These advertisers may care nothing about reaching night-bound traffic after dark.
Lights are a great idea on most billboards – but not on all of them. This will give you an overall history of lighting signs and some of the issues to consider. Signs have a colorful past and there is much to be learned from that narrative.