Origin of Number Plates

Imagine for a second a world without number plates. How would vehicle ownership be determined? By model, colour or age? What’s to prevent people from stealing vehicles and switching engines in the absence of ownership standards? Worse, law enforcement agencies would have limited options when trying to identify traffic violators or vehicles used in the course of criminal activities. Thankfully, we don’t have to deal with such a chaotic situation because the concept of number plates was rightfully invented at the dawn of the automobile age.


The birth of number plates


Many people credit the Dutch for inventing number plates. While the Netherlands Vehicle Authority (Dienst Wegverkeer) did introduce the first ever nationally registered license plate system on 26 April 1898, the concept itself was conceived five years earlier in France.


The now defunct the Department of the Seine in Paris took matters into their own hands when automobiles began to crowd the streets of the city. On 14 August 1893, the department passed the Paris Police Ordinance which introduced revolutionary requirements such as driving licenses, vehicle registrations and unique identifier tags. These identifier tags, which referenced a vehicle’s registration and ownership details, were required to be displayed on the left side of every vehicle using the streets of Paris.


A typical Dutch license plate. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Spread of Number Plates Usage


The success of the Department of Seine’s initiative compelled a similar legislation to be passed in Germany in 1896. However, registrations tags were limited to just numbers; the alphanumeric format was only introduced in 1906.


Another early adopter of the format is Spain. The country passed the Real Orden de 1897 (Royal Order of 1897) on 31 July 1897 which authorised the General Directorate of Public Works to regulate the display of number plates on all vehicles not powered by animals.


The Dutch finally joined the game in 1898, and their serialised and localised tags became the de facto blueprint of practically all future number plate formats in other countries.


Introduction of Number Plates in the United Kingdom


Surprisingly, the United Kingdom lagged considerably behind in the development of vehicle registration and number plate mechanisms. Parliament only introduced a similar national law in 1904 with the passage of the Motor Car Act 1903. The act has been updated regularly since then, and remains the most authoritative legislation in the country for vehicle registrations and number plates (including private reg and private plate).