Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Stop Lights in History

By Nancy J. Farrier

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
Wikimedia Commons
If you look at pictures of streets before the automobile, you would see that traffic jams didn’t happen with the invention of the car. In major cities throughout the world, there were problems with buggies, wagons, and other conveyances vying for space on narrow streets. Once automobiles were added to the mix, some thoroughfares became overcrowded and caused heated exchanges or accidents.

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
Wikimedia Commons
The earliest attempt at a traffic signal happened in London in 1868. It was based on Knight’s recommendation. I couldn’t find much information on how the signal worked, but a police officer controlled the signal, changing it when needed. A month after being installed, a gas leak caused the light to explode, seriously injuring the policeman. The lights were declared unsafe and never used again.

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
Wikimedia Commons
Hoge’s light didn’t use the traditional color signal we are used to. His signal incorporated the words, “stop” and “move” to let drivers know when they were safe to go. A policeman sat in a booth and controlled the changes with a flip of a switch. They could also control traffic in case an emergency vehicle needed faster passage.

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
Wikimedia Commons
The stoplight caught on and became a symbol of progress. Every town in America wanted their own light as a status symbol and by 1930 most had their own traffic light. Traffic deaths were cut in half as people learned to obey the signs and consider the safety of themselves and others. 

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
Perhaps we could use a “Courtesy Week” today to combat the road rage sometimes encountered by drivers. It’s hard to imagine road ways without traffic lights where everyone goes when they want. The traffic snarl would be horrendous. 

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.


  1. What a fun post! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Nancy! I think we need an infinite number of courtesy weeks for drivers. Your statement about people not liking to stop for others and saw that as an infringement on their rights reminds me that people have not changed over the years. Since I live in the roundabout kingdom of the world, I wonder how long they've been around (and when people will learn which way to go through them...)

    1. Linda, that’s an interesting thought about the history of roundabouts. I don’t live in a roundabout kingdom so they make me uncomfortable. Yes, I agree, people haven’t changed much.

  3. Oh good Lord, Nancy! Given the state of traffic WITH signals and signs, I can't imagine how it would be without them!!! Thanks for the post!

    1. I know, Connie. Driving would be such a nightmare.

  4. Wow, I've never given thought of how they came to be but I can't imagine not having them around.