The other day as I was driving around town with the kid, he asked what people did before there were traffic lights. I replied that policemen helped to direct traffic, but honestly, I was just guessing. That got me thinking: when were traffic lights invented, and when and where were they first used?

Truly, I was delighted with the answer, and if you regularly read this blog, you will understand why.

The very first traffic light was invented in 1868 by John Peake Knight, a superintendent of the South-Eastern Railway. Streets in larger English cities, primarily London, had become terribly congested by the 1860s. As trains became the primary vehicles for transport of goods and people across the country, carriages were increasingly used to get both goods and people to and from the trains. As the English middle class and its wealth grew, more people bought their own carriages, putting more of them on the street.

Poster issued by Metropolitan Police, 1868.

The signal invented by Knight closely resembled a railway signal; a pillar with a light on the top, and semaphore arms, operated by a policeman. It was erected in December 1868 near the House of Commons, at the intersection of Great George and Bridge Streets in Westminster. Unfortunately, just three weeks after it was installed, a gas leak caused it to explode, severely injuring its operator. The light was declared a safety hazard and removed, and London didn’t see another traffic light until the 1920s.

Cleveland, Ohio, 1914.
Source: The Motorist

US Patent 1,951,666, Inventor J.B. Hoge.

Traffic lights as we know them today were invented in the U.S. The first electric traffic signal was erected in 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio, at the intersection of Euclid Avenue (of course) and East 105th Street. The signal consisted of eight lights, four red and four green; red, of course, meant “stop,” and green meant “proceed.” Each pair of lights was mounted on a corner post, and operated manually.

US Patent 1,475,024, Inventor Garrett Morgan

But it was Garrett Morgan who patented the design that was the precursor to the traffic signal we use today. He was born in Kentucky and eventually moved to Cleveland, where he and his brother saved a number of workers in a tunnel collapse under Lake Erie, using a gas mask of his own invention. The first African-American man to own a car in Cleveland, he developed and patented the first three-way traffic signal in 1923. He eventually sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000. Just before his death in 1963, he was honored by the U.S. government for his invention, and recognized for his role as a hero in the Lake Erie disaster. He is buried in Lake View Cemetery.

The Victorianist: The Disastrous Debut of the World’s First Traffic Lights
This Day in History: August 5
The Guardian: Nooks and Crannies

P.S. This being the first Father’s Day since my dad passed away in January, I didn’t have the heart to do a post on Father’s Day. But if you’re interested, I found a fascinating post on the history of the day at Father’s Day, it says, was slow to catch on. “As one historian writes, they ‘scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving, or they derided the proliferation of such holidays as a commercial gimmick to sell more products–often paid for by the father himself.'”

Happy Father’s Day, everyone. May you be able to spend it with someone you love.