Have you ever wondered how our traffic light system came about? When and how were the first stop lights in use? Were they even needed early on since cars didn’t go that fast and there weren’t all that many on the road? Let’s take a look.
|Yellow Stop Sign 1924|
British railway manager, John Peake Knight, suggested using the railway method of ensuring safety on the tracks. During the day semaphore flags were used to direct the trains. At night, gas lamps lit red or green signals to let the engineer know whether they could use a track or not.
|Hoge Traffic Signal Design|
In the early 1900’s several patents were filed for traffic signals, however the first electric light used is credited to James Hoge. The initial light was installed in Cleveland, Ohio, at the intersection of Euclid and 105th Street in 1914. By this time, the number of deaths from automobile accidents had risen to over 4,000 for the year. The streets must have been chaos with everyone intent on where they were going and so many people on the road.
|1930 Traffic Regulator|
In 1917, the first automated traffic signal was patented. In 1920, a Detroit police officer developed the first three-color signal, which added the yellow or “caution” to the mix. In 1923, Garrett Morgan, the first African-American to own a car, patented a signal incorporating a T-shaped pole with three positions. The benefits to his design were that drivers from different directions could see the signal and the light was inexpensive to produce. He later sold the rights to his traffic light to General Electric.
|1940 Traffic Signal Installation|
Photo by Russell Lee
There were complaints. People didn’t like having to stop for others and saw it as an infringement on their rights. Policemen noted anger issues of the drivers waiting at red lights as their impatience mounted. In 1919 a Cleveland school teacher invented the game, Red Light, Green Light to teach school children how to recognize the significance of the colors. That game is still used today as a teaching tool.
In 1916, the Detroit Automotive Club instituted “Courtesy Week.” Drivers were encouraged to display kindness and courtesy to other drivers on the road because ill behavior was becoming the norm. Drivers were encouraged to show “the breeding that motorists are expected to manifest in all other human relations.” Impatience was on the rise.
|1909 Chicago Traffic Jam|
I, for one, am glad to have stoplights to help the traffic flow and provide safety. What about you? Would you rather have no lights and let people choose what to do? Or do you like the safety of having the traffic signals?
Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.