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Stop and Go – A Brief History of the Traffic Light

Certainly nobody likes to get caught at a red light, but think of how much more chaotic traffic would be in any modern city without them. This great old photo from the Henry Ford Museum got us thinking about the history of traffic control devices in general and the illuminated ones in particular.


Left to right above; Memphis “Corner Man” circa 1920, courtesy of the Tennesse State Police : Pedestal type three lamp traffic light of the type used in  Detroit in the 1920’s, credit The Henry Ford : Salon, Ohio, early 1960’s, courtesy of the Salon Ohio Historical Society.

As cities grew in the 19th century and congestion with them, it became clear that some sort of control and regulation had to be adopted to try to rein in the ever increasing bedlam. Early attempts to solve the problem consisted of a police officer standing at a strategic corner with either just a whistle and a pair of white gloves or a simple semaphore type device like the one seen on the left (above). Needless to say, this kind of assignment was less than popular with members of the force who had to stand out there in all kinds of weather dodging vehicles of all types. Other designs provided an umbrella and seat for the beleaguered blue coat or placed him up in a tower out of harms way.


Left to right above from the Municipal Index; Note the “mushroom” type device at the top center of the page from the Attica Traffic Signal Co., ca., 1925,  American Gas Accumulator Company ca., 1927, Attica Traffic Signal Co., ca., 1927.  All courtesy of  Willis Lamm’s Traffic Signal Collection.

While these arrangements might have been adequate during daylight hours, their effectiveness diminished rapidly at night.  In London, England in 1868, a gas illuminated device was tried, but soon abandoned after it exploded, injuring the operator. Electrically lit and manually operated contraptions eliminated the issue of potential detonations, but still left the officer in a vulnerable spot. As early as 1917, mechanical timers were tried on some electric lights. Although these removed officers from their perilous positions in the street, they still had to be wound on a regular basis, much like a grandfather clock.

Later lights were electrically timed. William Potts, a Detroit police officer, is generally acknowledged as the inventor of  the modern, three way traffic light, having done so in 1920. He adapted lenses from railroad signals to a box with three separate chambers stacked upon each other with a bulb in each. His configuration with the red light on top, yellow in the middle and green on the bottom is the form that has become so familiar to all of us today.

Top photo courtesy of  The Henry Ford Museum. Many other interesting photos from The Henry Ford, (scroll down) can also be seen here on The Old Motor.

5 responses to “Stop and Go – A Brief History of the Traffic Light

  1. David,

    That traffic tower from 5th Ave. NYC is really a piece of work. Looks like a traffic cop could actually monitor things from the boxed in glass inclosure.

    • Thanx for your comment and your interest in The Old Motor, Shawn. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the date of Potts’ invention (1920) does precede Mr. Morgan’s patent by three years. It is entirely possible that Potts never patented his idea. Indeed, I have been unable to find any evidence that he ever did. It’s also possible that Morgan and Potts had similar ideas at approximately the same time, a situation that isn’t as uncommon as you might think.

  2. Garret Morgan’s design was a very unique t-shape and looked nothing like the ones we know today. In the end, he made out really nicely after selling his patent to General Electric for $40,000.

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