Reflective Roadwork Signs: A History

Orange signs are a common phenomenon along America’s highways; the bright reflective colors warn us of roadwork. However, most travelers don’t take time to consider the history of these routinely encountered highway staples.

The iconic orange signs came about during the end of America’s Great Depression. According to The The New York Times, reflective orange signs were invented by a manual laborer named Harry Hetzler. Hetzler, making an astonishing twelve dollars an hour, invented the reflective orange material we encounter on the highways, for 3M. Due to his invention, he became a top executive, for 3M. According to A Century of Innovation the 3M Story, Hetzler first designed reflective tape using small glass beads, during 1939. Hetzler’s Reflective material appeared on a highway in Minneapolis the same year.

Hetzler’s reflective orange material wasn’t an instant success. Originally, he intended to adhere the reflective material directly to the highway. Hetzler was assigned the task of creating a material that possessed a greater visibility, than white or yellow paint, at night. Hetzler created a reflective material with small glass beads, however, The New York Times states that Hetzler’s reflective tape lost its sticky property in cold weather. Much like Edison’s lightbulb, Hetzler’s reflective material came about due to trial and error. Hetzler and 3M abandoned adhering the reflective material directly to the road and affixed it to sheet metal.

Hetzler’s reflective tape remained in use from 1939-1944, unaltered. According to A Century of Innovation the 3M Story, it wasn’t until 1944 that 3M developed a reflective tape with greater reflectivity and weather resistance, this material is still used in reflective fabric and bicycle tires. Currently, Duct Tape makes a variety of reflective tapes. These tapes wouldn’t have been possible without the innovations of Harry Hetzler.

Why does the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) suggest using orange to warn motorists of roadwork? According to Wikipedia, permanent cautions are denoted by yellow signs with black text, but temporary cautions, such as road hazards, are denoted by orange signs with black text. The combination of orange and black is used for “maximal visibility throughout the day and night.” Simply, orange reflective signs allow for the greatest visibility.

Next time you head out for the open road, don’t forget to take note of road construction signs. The reflective orange signs warn us of danger and are a culmination of technologies and American innovation.

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