If you've ever grumbled about bad drivers hogging the road, be thankful you didn't live in 1914. As automobiles became more popular, city streets were harrowing places. Cars, bicycles, horses, pedestrians, and streetcars all shared the road – without the help of traffic lights.
So when was the first traffic light installed? The original electric stoplight system dates back to August 5, 1914, in Cleveland, Ohio. But the road to achieving that first traffic light was as crowded and taxing as those bustling streets were a century ago.
By many accounts, London should have taken home the prize. The United Kingdom pioneered the use of illuminated street signs more than 45 years before Cleveland got on board.
British inventor JP Knight designed a gas-lit signal inspired by railroad signs and semaphore flags. The pole switched between red and green lamps. (It's interesting that, from the very beginning, red meant stop and green meant go.) Mr. Knight's creation, which was installed outside the House of Parliament in 1868, worked well – except that it exploded and killed a police officer. England quickly abandoned their plans for future street signals.
However, as cities grew and cars caught on, traffic accidents got out of hand. By the turn of the century, American politicians knew they needed some way to keep streets safer. So, urban planners began experimenting. San Francisco created the first traffic island in 1907. Michigan started painting a dividing line on streets in 1911. Buffalo, N.Y., erected the first "No Left Turn" sign in 1916. And, as we now know, Cleveland installed the first electric traffic light system in 1914.
If you want to quibble, Salt Lake City has a pretty good claim to predating Cleveland's invention. In 1912, policeman Lester Wire set up a simple box with red and green lights that tapped into the trolley system for power. This handmade contraption looked a bit like a bird house, which caught Mr. Wire some flack from locals, who considered these safety rules to be a nuisance. "Pedestrians would yell at drivers waiting in cars for the light to change, 'Are you waiting to see if the birdies will come out?' or 'I saw a birdie that time; now you can go?' " writes Linda Thatcher, a librarian at the Utah State Historical Society. "The traffic light became known as 'Wire's bird cage' and 'Wire's pigeon house.' "
Cleveland claims it was the first because it established a "traffic control system." The US patent office agreed, awarding the first traffic-light patent to Ohio inventor J.B. Hoge. The Cleveland design consisted of four pairs of red and green lights, mounted to different sides of a post. A nearby control booth manually operated the lights.
Automated traffic lights wouldn't come around until 1920 in Los Angeles. At this time, there was no third light. A five-second bell stood in for the yellow or amber signal, alerting motorists of when the lights were about to change.
As America raced forward with roadway safety technology, England took a long while to catch up. Electric traffic lights would not appear in London until 1926, when officials installed them in Piccadilly Circus.
Now, 101 years after Cleveland installed the first electric system, traffic lights are everywhere. Next time you're on the road, imagine trying to stay safe while dodging horses, avoiding cars that drifted over the non-existent center line, and navigating intersections without the help of traffic lights.
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