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As drivers and pedestrians we often take life-saving traffic regulating measures like road markings, fencing and, of course, bollards, for granted. How much do you know about these seemingly unimposing structures?

Bollards are sturdy and reliable elements that keep society running smoothly, and are especially important if you are a pedestrian or motor vehicle driver. Let’s take a step back and focus on one of the things we depend on, but rarely spare a moment to appreciate.

Bollards are strategically designed poles that play a vital role in the successful organisation and smooth operation of many traffic systems around the world. Its main purpose is to provide safety and protection for road users of all kinds, and has remained unchanged throughout centuries of technological advancement.

Where does the word bollard come from?

The word can be broken up into two parts; bole- and -ard.

Bole- is traced back to the early 14th century where in Old Norse it meant ‘tree trunk’ and -ard has connotations to the word ‘hard’. Bollard came in to use around 1844 as a term for a mooring post, and since 1948 it has come to mean a traffic control device.

The first bollard

During the 17th and 18th centuries, when sea travel was one of the few accessible means of transport, mariners and seamen had to devise a way to secure their vessels after they’ve disembarked. The ultimate solution had to be both innovative and economical. The initial idea was to use old, out-of-service cannons to moor the ships along the quayside. This was achieved by digging a hole and burying the barrel-end of the cannon with the posterior protruding out of the ground to provide a solid, robust station to which the moor ropes could be tied.

This humble mooring solution was in fact the first form of the bollard and today the structure remains essentially the same. Putting old weapons of war to use in a way that protected property and provided safety just goes to show how inventive the people were who lived around the time of the dawn of the maritime bollard.

Traffic diversion

As early as 1721 wooden posts were used to direct traffic and protect pedestrians from the extensive horse-drawn cart networks that threaded throughout the villages and towns of England. Hertfordshire is home to one of the earliest cases of this particular historical bollard application. Two oak posts were installed to guard Waltham Cross against damage from carriages.

These early traffic management structures were quite rudimentary but it marked the beginning of a system that would be developed and refined to handle the densest, most chaotic and unpredictable city traffic.

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