When Was the First Traffic Light Installed?

There is one in every town, a faulty traffic light that seems to hold on red for far too long and stay on green for only a few seconds, causing a major traffic jam during peak driving hours. As drivers, we constantly yell at these little red, yellow, and green lights, often run them illegally and mumble under our breath when it seems that we always catch each red light when you’re in a hurry.

But if those sometimes annoying little street lights didn’t exist, (even the faulty ones), there would be many more traffic accidents out on the road. The traffic light has greatly evolved over the years since it was first put into place on the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland Ohio, on August 5th, 1914. Here are some more facts about the very first traffic light.

Early Automobiles Competed with Bicycles, Streetcars and Horses

During the early days of the automobile, driving America’s roadways was a highly chaotic experience as you can imagine. No signals, no stop signs, intersections with no type of rules on who goes first, it was big confusing, tragic mess. Add in the fact that not everyone was driving an automobile, since many people were sticking to their horses, bicycles, and streetcars, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The problem was slightly alleviated when the horse and buggy gradually disappeared. But it was still very clear that there was a great need for a system of regulations that would help keep traffic moving and reduce the number of accidents on the roads.

Finch’s Book Explains Some of the First Traffic System Essentials

Author Christopher Finch wrote in his book “Highways to Heaven: the AUTO Biography of America.” The first traffic island was placed in San Francisco, California in 1907; left-hand drive became standard with American drivers in 1908. The first center painted dividing line appeared in 1911 in Michigan. And the first “No Left Turn” sign showed up in Buffalo, New York, in 1916.

Who Was Responsible for the First Traffic Light?

There has been plenty of debate over the years as to who actually was responsible for the first signal. Multiple stories exist in terms to who was responsible for the first traffic light.

There was a device installed in London in 1868 that had two semaphore arms which extended horizontally to signal “Stop” and at a 45-degree angle to signal “Caution.”

In 1912, a Salt Lake City police officer named Lester Wire mounted a handmade wooden box with colored red and green lights on a pole. The wires were attached to an overhead trolley and light wires.

Most prominently, the inventor Garrett Morgan has been given credit for having invented the traffic light based on his T-shaped design, which was patented in 1923 and later reportedly sold to General Electric.

About Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan paved the way for African-American inventors with his patents, including those for a hair-straightening product, a breathing device, a revamped sewing machine and an improved traffic system.

Garrett only had an elementary school education, but he was able to come up with innovative and useful tools that, in some ways, are still in use today. He was born in Kentucky on March 4, 1877. Morgan started his career as a sewing machine mechanic and went on to patent several great inventions.

He started the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company and sold his hair straightening device as well as a chemical solution in the form of a cream that could help straighten the hair of African-Americans.

His respiratory device would later provide the blueprint for WWI gas masks. Morgan died on July 27, 1963 in Cleveland, Ohio.


The Municipal Traffic Control System

In spite of Morgan’s greater visabilityu, the system installed in Cleveland on August 5,1914 is widely regarded as the first electric traffic signal. It was based on a design created by James Hoge, who received U.S. patent 1,251,666 for his “Municipal Traffic Control System” in 1918. It consisted of four pairs of red and green lights that served as stop-go indicators, each one mounted on a corner post. The traffic signal was wired to a manually operated switch located inside a control booth. The system was designed so that conflicting signals were impossible.

According to an article in The Motorist, which was published by the Cleveland Automobile Club in August of 1914 “The system is, perhaps, destined to revolutionize the handling of traffic in congested city streets and should be seriously considered by traffic committees for general adoption.”