The History and Evolution of Traffic Lights

Did you know that traffic lights were around even before cars were on the roads? Traffic lights have a fascinating and surprisingly long history.

Here are some facts about the history of traffic lights and traffic signs.

Before electricity

Before the widespread use of electricity—and even before cars were on the road—traffic lights were already in use. The first traffic lights as we know them were used in London in the 19th century. They used a gas-lit flame to alert passersby of passing trains. This was meant to alert those riding horses of the presence of railroad activity. These were also helpful in providing a safe way for pedestrians and those traveling by horse and carriage to cross railroad tracks.

These traffic signs were controlled by police officers during the daytime. At night, they used gas to light up the crossing areas. This was how things worked all the way up until the early 20th century, but everything changed once cars started becoming the preferred mode of transportation in America.

Electric lights

In the United States in the early 20th century, the car was taking off in popularity. This necessitated more traffic cops controlling traffic signs for intersections, which were suddenly swamped with motorized vehicles, in addition to horses, carriages and pedestrians. Police used an assortment of hand signals to direct traffic from towers at intersections. In some areas, green and red gas-powered lights helped direct the flow of traffic.

This gas-powered, colored light would be the model upon which modern traffic lights were built. The idea for electric traffic lights was thought up by a police officer in 1912, and by 1914, it had become a reality, with one of the first electric traffic lights ever to be put into use coming to the big city of Cleveland, Ohio.

These early traffic lights used only the red and green lights. The idea of a yellow warning light hadn’t been implemented yet, so to warn drivers of a pending light change, a loud buzzing noise was made between the transition of stop and go. These lights still required manual operation, but it wasn’t long before that problem was fixed too.

Automated lights

Starting around 1920, the idea of automated traffic lights started becoming more common. These lights were timed to change at fixed intervals. But, as anyone who’s ever waited at a traffic light where there’s nobody crossing can attest, this got old very quickly for motorists who didn’t enjoy the unnecessary waiting.

The first solution was to install microphones that would detect sound from oncoming traffic and signal the light to change color when necessary. This was quickly outwitted by drivers who used their horns to get the lights to change (and unwittingly cause accidents), so a 10-second delay was added to the process. When computer technology saw major advancements in the mid 20th century, traffic lights began to include computerized detection. This gave birth to the modern traffic light operation as we know it today.

Whether you need parts to fix traffic lights in your city or new traffic lights for new roads or for replacements for outdated ones, contact Signal Equipment Company South today.