Sunday, April 2, 2023

Lester Wire and Garrett Morgan: Inventors of the Traffic Light System

Amber Lemus Christian Author
Blogger: Amber Lemus

Traffic light in Sweden 1953. Photo by Olle Karlsson
Public Domain

Yet another common item that we rarely think about is the three signal traffic light. Fellow blogger Nancy J. Ferrier did a fantastic post on the general history of traffic lights a few years ago, (you can read that here.) but today I want to focus on two of the inventors specifically, Lester Wire and Garrett Morgan.

First, a little background. In the early days of the automobile, driving was a precarious activity. The streets were filled with horses, carriages, bicycles, pedestrians, and even streetcars in some cases, all competing for a spot on the road and the right of way. It soon became obvious that we needed some sort of regulation.

Before traffic lights were invented, police men would stand at the major intersections and direct traffic. As you can imagine, this was a dangerous job, and the traffic officers were always searching for ways to make their job safer and easier.
December 10, 1868 was the official birth of the first traffic signal, which was installed in London's Parliament Square. However it ended only two months later in a horrible tragedy. The signal was composed of two mobile signs attached to arms that were pivoted by using a lever. The traffic officer would operate it, and blow his whistle before changing the signal. At the top of the post was a gas-lit semaphore to make the signal visible in the dark. Only two months after it was installed, it exploded, killing the traffic officer who was operating it at the time. 

An early traffic light in New York with only two lights.
Photo credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Twachtman, Phyllis

Lester Wire
Thus, it was a traffic officer, Lester Wire, who invented the first electric signal in 1912. Lester was a 24-year-old who had been named the head of the traffic squad in Salt Lake City, but he was intent on finding a better way for his squad to control the traffic without having to stand for long hours, subjected to all kinds of weather. As the story goes, he used Matthew 5:15 as his inspiration to create the first electric traffic signal. "Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all."
His first prototype consisted of a small wooden box with a pitched roof that had red and green lights on all four sides of the box. He then put it on top of a 10 foot pole and wired into the trolley lines. Once installed, it would be manually operated by the traffic officer in a booth on the side of the road. Because of the birdhouse shape of the light, many people mocked its design and nicknamed it Wire's birdcage. Pedestrians would taunt drivers by yelling remarks like, "Are you waiting to see if the birdies will come out?" 
Wire later developed a more durable metal design, but he never patented any of his designs. Some believe that was because he was drafted into WWI and didn't have time to finish the process. Nevertheless, his designs were first installed in August of 1914 in Cleveland, OH on the corner of East 105th and Euclid Avenue.

These early models worked much better than the gas-lit ones, however, they had only two lights, red and green, and they were manually operated. This gave drivers no time to react when the light changed from "go" to "stop."
There's so much more that could be said about Lester, but we don't have room for all of it in this post. You can read his biography here.

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan
Photo Public Domain

In 1923, a man by the name of Garrett Morgan was living in Cleveland. He was the first African American citizen in the city to own a car. One day, Garrett witnessed a horrible accident between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage. This accident spurred him to invent a traffic signal that would create a safer intersection for the various vehicles and pedestrians traveling together in the streets. 
Garrett designed a T-shaped automated system with a warning light (predecessor to our modern day yellow light) in between the red and green lights so that vehicles had time to clear the intersection before the next flow of traffic began romping into the intersection. Garrett was granted a patent in November of 1923. 
There are a few other inventors who had experimented with the third light before Garrett, but he was the one to combine the three light system with automation.

Garrett is a fascinating character who invented several other things, including a gas mask that saved many lives. He was also highly influential in the city of Cleveland. He founded a newspaper, the Cleveland Call, which became one of the most important Black American newspapers in the nation. I highly recommend reading his full biography here.

Once the traffic lights were switched to automatic timers, it saved cities unbelievable amounts of money, while also making the intersections safer. In 1922, the city of New York was able to reassign all but 500 of its 6,000 officers working on the traffic squad, which saved the city over twelve and a half
million dollars, and instead freed the police officers up to fight crime and keep the peace in neighborhoods. That's a win that we owe in huge part to Garrett Morgan and other inventors like him.

Of course, with the rise of computers, traffic lights made huge improvements and are part of what make our traffic systems as good as they are now.

In the course of writing this blog post, I learned a lot about the traffic lights, how important the automation is. I now hold a greater appreciation for that yellow light too!

How about you? Have you ever considered the importance of that yellow light? Did you ever play "one, two, three, green!" as a kid in the car?


Two-time winner of the Christian Indie Award for historical fiction, Amber Lemus inspires hearts through enthralling tales She has a passion for travel, history, books and her Savior. This combination results in what her readers call "historical fiction at its finest".

She lives near the Ozarks in her "casita" with her prince charming. Between enjoying life as a boy mom, and spinning stories out of soap bubbles, Amber loves to connect with readers and hang out on Goodreads with other bookish peoples.

Amber is a proud member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association. Visit her online at and download a FREE story by subscribing to her Newsletter!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today! I do see the benefits of a yellow light, but so many drivers don't pay attention and use it as just a "go faster" signal. That doesn't increase safety at all. Such is the nature of man to push limits, I guess.