worlds first known signal device for regulating street traffic came
into being before the automobile
was in use, back when traffic consisted only of pedestrians, buggies and wagons.
It was installed in 1868 in London, at the intersection of George and Bridge Streets
near the Houses of Parliament. Designed by railroad signal engineer
JP Knight, it had two semaphore arms which, when extended horizontally,
meant "stop"; and when drooped at a 45-degree angle, meant "caution."
At night, red and green gas lights accompanied the "stop" and "caution"
positions. Red meant "stop" and green meant "caution." The
lantern, illuminated by gas, was turned by means of a lever at its base so that
the appropriate light faced traffic. Traffic police officers operated semaphores
and early traffic lights by hand. City officials didnt think drivers would
obey the signals if traffic officers werent there to enforce them. The traffic
officers judged the traffic and decided when to change the signal. To alert traffic
that the signal was about to change, they blew a whistle. Early
traffic signals in comparison were much shorter than flag
poles and street lights as shown in the picture above.|
The first automobile traffic light
was invented around 1912 by Lester
Farnsworth Wire, who was then head of the traffic division of the
Salt Lake City Police Department. His two lamps, one red and one green, came from
lights then in use on seagoing vessels and railroad signals where they meant stop
and go as they do now. This light was a large wooden box with two six-inch holes
on each side. Inside the holes were Mazda lamps which had been dipped in red or
green watercolors. The box was painted yellow and planted on top of a ten-foot
pole. The light was installed in Salt Lake City in 1912 at the intersection of
Main Street and Second South. It was operated by a patrolman who used a two way
throw switch to change the lights colors. To power the light, wires from
the box were attached to the overhead trolley wires. At first the signal was a
novelty and even a joke to the local community. No one wanted to stop for a flashing
bird house. People stood on the corner just to watch it. Needless to say,
Lester became very discouraged. However, a few citizens thought it was an improvement
and wanted more placed around the city. People from larger cities were impressed
by the light, but local residents thought it a curiosity and nuisance.
with the coming of more automobiles, the situation got even worse. Police
Officer William Potts of Detroit, Michigan, decided to do something
about the problem. What he had in mind was figuring out a way to adapt railroad
signals for street use. The railroads were already utilizing automatic controls.
Potts used red, amber, and green railroad lights and about thirty-seven dollars
worth of wire and electrical controls to make the worlds first automatic
traffic light. It was installed in 1920 on the corner of Woodward and Michigan
Avenues in Detroit. He actually invented several traffic light systems, including
the overhang four-way system, but did not apply for patents.
The first person to apply for a patent to produce inexpensive traffic lights was
Garrett Morgan, who received his patent in 1923. Garrett
Augustus Morgan (1877-1963) realized the need to control the flow
of traffic in Ohio. A gifted inventor and reportedly the first African American
to own an automobile in Cleveland, Ohio, he invented the electric automatic traffic
light. His traffic light was a T-shaped pole that had three positions: Stop, Go,
and the third position allowed pedestrians to cross the street or road more safely.
The reason for the third position was to halt traffic in all directions. Years
later, this invention was sold to General Electric for $40,000. Signal devices
similar to the traffic light were also patented for England and Canada. Morgan's
hand-cranked semaphore traffic management device was in use throughout North America
until all manual traffic signals were replaced by early models of the automatic
red-, yellow- and green-light traffic signals currently used around the world.
before his death in 1963, the United States Government awarded Morgan a commendation
for his traffic signal.
Light Tree" On a roundabout just beyond the Canary Wharf estate
there are three trees, two are London planes; the third is a traffic light tree;
Pierre Vivant's eternal tree replaced another London plane as it was dying. Funded
and produced by the Public Art Commissions Agency, the tree is eight meters tall
with 75 sets of lights, and it was installed in East London in 1999. The Traffic
Light Tree was the winner in an international competition, and each set of lights
has a cycle that is controlled by a computer. "The sculpture imitates
the natural landscape of the adjacent London Plane Trees, while the changing pattern
of the lights reveals and reflects the never ending rhythm of the surrounding
domestic, financial and commercial activities," says Vivant. Born in
Paris in 1952 Vivant has been commuting between his Oxford and Paris Studios since
1973 producing and exhibiting work on both sides of the Channel.
Red has often been the color chosen when the goal was to attract attention, since
red, more than any other color, heightens nervous tension in people. Green, on
the other hand, has a neutral effect on human emotions, so it was natural to use
it to indicate an "okay to proceed" condition. When it was decided to
add a caution lamp to the traffic light, yellow was chosen because, other than
white, it was the color most distinguishable from red and green. White, of course,
was not desired since it could be confused with the many other white lightssuch
as streetlightsthat might be near the traffic light.