All About the First Electric Traffic Light

We take traffic lights for granted in our everyday life, forgetting that there was once a time when these useful indicators didn’t yet exist. The world’s first electric traffic light was installed at the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 105th St. in Cleveland, OH on August 5, 1914, instantly improving safety on America’s roadways. Here’s what you need to know about the groundbreaking technology that became the first traffic light.

Early traffic signals

In the days before electric traffic signals, navigating America’s streets could be a very chaotic experience for pedestrians, bicycles, horses and streetcars. As America switched from the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile, the chaos was alleviated somewhat, but it was clear that a system of regulators was required to prevent accidents and to keep traffic moving.

The date of the creation of the world’s first traffic signal is up for debate, with many believing that a device installed in London in 1868 was the first signal of its kind, providing a “stop” or “caution” indicator. There is no dispute about the world’s first electric traffic light, though, which is the one installed in Cleveland in 1914.

The arrival of electricity

The first electric traffic signal was based on a design by James Hoge, who eventually received a patent in 1918 for the design. This early mode featured four pairs of red and green lights that served as stop-go indicators. Each pair was mounted to a corner post at an intersection, and they were wired to a manually operated switch inside a control booth. The light boxes were shaped like a birdhouse, and they also featured a buzzer that gave people nearby a warning that the light would soon change.

Other inventors built upon this early model to create better traffic signals that would improve the safety of those using America’s roadways. By 1923, a three-position traffic light had been invented. It introduced the yellow light, which we know today as the signal that indicates drivers should slow down or proceed with caution, as the light will soon turn to red.

Today’s traffic signals

For many decades, traffic lights were programmed to change at arbitrary intervals, which wasn’t efficient in all situations. Today’s signals change through detection of cars or pedestrians, rather than at specified time intervals. Computerized signal systems, first introduced in the 1960s, improved the flow of traffic and adapted to movement of vehicles on the roadway, including ambulances and even trucks and buses. This system is called the transit signal priority, prioritizing these vehicles so they can get where they need to go quicker and easier.

Today’s traffic signaling systems are part of an overall intelligent transportation system (ITS). The technology works together in real time to communicate with vehicles and infrastructure, improving the flow of traffic and boosting safety on our roadways. Every innovation aims to optimize transportation systems to improve the quality of life for drivers and pedestrians alike.

Traffic signal systems have come a long way since the early days of the first traffic light. Learn more about the components of modern signaling systems by contacting the experts at Signal Equipment Company South today.