Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Search Challenge (2/11/15): How did traffic signs come to be?

This week's Challenge is another fun one that came across my desk.  It's a short, fun, historical romp through the fields of yesteryear.  

A while back, a reader asked the question:  

1.  When did turn signals on AUTOMOBILES come to be a thing?  Can you determine when the first turn signals were installed on cars?  Who invented them? 

And that led me to wonder in turn... 

2.  When did signals on the ROAD come to be a thing?  Can you figure out when (and where) the first traffic lights were installed? 

This is a fun one.  The search insight here will be something about what sources you choose to draw upon.  

How will you find out? 

When you know the answer (or at least, AN answer), be sure to write up a comment about HOW you found the answer.  What sources did you consult, and why those particular sources?  

Search on!  


  1. Good day, Dr. Russell, fellow SearchResearchers


    [turn signals history intext:cars]

    Who Made That Turn Signal? NY Times In 1909, a British man named Percy Douglas-Hamilton patent. In 1939, Buick introduced turn signals as a standard feature.

    A History of the Turn Signal

    Silent-film star and inventor of mechanical turn signal dies

    Automobile Accessories and Parts inventors and more


    Device for indicating the intended movements of vehicles. Patent

    [first car turn signals]

    [Car turn signals history] Google Books
    Add turn signals to your car.

    [first car with "turn signals"]

    [road signs origin]

    The Origin of the Green, Yellow, and Red Color Scheme for Traffic Lights December 10, 1868, the system was put in place at the junction of Great George and Bridge Street in London, near Parliament.

    Traffic Sign, Wikipedia

    Road Sign History
    The evolution of early U.S. road signs AC (after cars)

    [William L. Potts ]

    Traffic Lights Invented by William L. Potts


    1. When did turn signals on AUTOMOBILES come to be a thing? Can you determine when the first turn signals were installed on cars? Who invented them?

    A: Europe German-built Model A's. America, in 1930 with Buick. Invented by Percy Douglas-Hamilton in 1907. He obtained patent in 1909

    2. When did signals on the ROAD come to be a thing? Can you figure out when (and where) the first traffic lights were installed?
    A.1899 with first Drivers clubs. In 1915, the very first stop sign appeared in Detroit.

    In 1920 in Detroit Michigan, a policeman named William L. Potts invented the four-way, three-color traffic signal using all three of the colors now used in the railroad system. Thus, Detroit became the first to use the red, green, and yellow lights to control road traffic.

    Standardizing road sign: 1922

    Much fun and lots of new knowledge.

    1. [Primer Semaforo Mexico] Yes, I took off accents.

      First Traffic Lights (Spanish.) First traffic light Westminster 1868. First one for cars Cleveland 1914

      Traffic light in Mexico and more (Spanish.) Very interesting site from where word "Semáforo" comes from. First traffic light on december 1868, six meters tall.

      * 1910 Earnest Sirrine electric one and it was installed in Cleveland 1914.
      * William Ghiglieri, in San Francisco created automatic one in 1917.
      *William Potts added amber light

      And in Mexico? Porfirio Diaz wanted to install them in 1910. However, it was not until 1930.

      In other parts of the world, amber also is seen as go faster? flavilabar

    2. (music to read by: …faster, faster, the lights are turning red…)
      (if you like that, don't miss this - Live From Daryl’s House,)
      ahhh… not seeing a traffic light in sight? but plenty of cars…
      your link translated via Goo, gracias
      intersection of Avenida Juarez and San Juan de Letran
      down the street
      there's one

      William Potts
      People also search for
      more UDOT
      good history/pics, UK, new source for me
      includes a pic of Knight's device installed - "The location where the signal was fitted is still visible today. This arguably makes Tower Bridge the oldest signalised location in the world."

      more detail:
      part 1
      part 2
      "About Monte Castleman
      Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in the Oxboro neighborhood of Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an health insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks."

    3. Hi, Remmij. Thanks for the links. Lots of information. I still need to visit some. The traffic light in UDOT you share looks more like a Bird's house, pretty amazing.

      The article and photos from linkedin is great. It is a new source for me. It is great to being able to understand, read and watch history. With all your links, I remembered a video that saw many years ago. In it Boston traffic was studied. They showed that not all lights can go green at the same time for example in a straight street. This because, the traffic will be much worst. Therefore, they need some seconds to allow cars to move and then traffic improves.

      Thanks, again, Remmij

    4. [Unknown facts traffic lights]

      Garret Morgan The first black man in Cleveland to own a car. In 1923, he created a new kind of traffic signal later sold it to GE.
      General facts about traffic and jams
      To learn more
      And a Museum!

  2. Ramón - working off your direction — a quick UK diversion with Yankee Doodle in need of traffic control… went the map route.
    Yankee Doodle went to town
    A-riding on a pony,
    Stuck a feather in his cap
    And called it macaroni.

    but may not have signaled…so this is the London view
    missing the semaphores
    found by using [first traffic control signals] search > R,Y,G
    following the wiki footnotes…
    …in the States: Euclid Ave & E 105th St
    Engineering is a state of mind.
    UDOT - policeman Lester F. Wire
    the Buick lead you provided -
    '39 Buick Special…hard to sell
    trafficators - the future past
    Alfredo Barrachini>Naillik Motor Signal Company>Gustave Deneef and Maurice Boisson>Max Ruhl and Ernst Neuman>pre-1961 Volkswagen Beetle sold outside the USA)
    trafficator in action, courtesy of Seinfeld - 0:32/41 in
    Florence Lawrence
    found this ACME traffic control, 1956 here a beta search tool
    for fun, a couple other SEs… -
    bing, see related people
    Yahoooly wow, that seems deficient

  3. What would they call the turn signals when invented? Query [synonym signal lights]. One name was the trafficator. Trafficators were initially mechanical. First used in 1890 for trains and in the early 1900s for cars.

    Query [invention traffic lights] - can be traced back to England’s John Knight who based his invention on the semaphore system.

    “The first traffic light -- combining a gas lamp and wooden semaphores -- was erected outside the Houses of Parliament in England in 1868. Designed by J.P. Knight, a railroad signalling engineer, it was manually operated by a policeman” This particular website has a good list at the bottom of other related websites on this topic.

    Query [first electric traffic signals] and find “The world's first electric traffic signal is put into place on the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland, Ohio, on this day in 1914.” using This Day in History

  4. Anne and I worked on this together. We started out using the search terms - "turn signals" cars history - for the first question. This search led us to several different sites. Second Chance Garage looked like an interesting site written for car enthusiasts - - Looking at their about us page it looked like the authors were authoritative. We got lots of information from this page. We found out in 1907 Percy Douglas-Hamilton applied for a patent (received in 1909 as U.S. patent 912831) for a device "indicating the intended movements of vehicles". These lights were shaped like hands so drivers who were accustomed to reading hand signals would know what the signals meant. Then in 1914 silent-film star Florence Lawrence designed a mechanical signaling arm (but she didn't get a patent). As the driver pushed a button, a sign on the rear bumper came up telling others which way the driver would turn. Next the Protex Safety Signal Company introduced flashing turn signals in 1920. The first modern turn signal can be attributed to Edgar A. Walz, Jr. who secured a patent for one in 1925 and then tried to market it to major car manufacturers who weren't interested. The patent expired fourteen years later. (This information came from the December 1985 issue of Popular Mechanics, according to this site). Buick was the first U.S. automaker to offer factory-installed flashing turn signals. They were introduced in 1939 as a safety feature, and were advertised as the "Flash-Way Directional Signal". The driver operated from a switch on the new "Handi-shift" column-mounted shifter. The flashing signals only operated on the rear lights. In 1940 Buick enhanced the directional indicators by extending the signals to front lights and adding a self-canceling mechanism. That year directional signals became standard on Buick, Cadillac, LaSalle, and the Hudson Country Club vehicles and optional on Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac. We then checked with several other sources including a wikipedia article on automotive lighting - -; a NY Times Magazine article called "Who Made That Turn Signal" - - We will post the answer to question 2 separately.

  5. For question 2 we used the search terms - "traffic signals" history - which led us to a wikipedia article on the history of the traffic signal - - From this article we found out that the first traffic control device appeared near the British House of Parliament at the intersection of George and Bridge Streets. "The main reason for the traffic light was that there was an overflow of horse-drawn traffic over Westminster Bridge which forced thousands of pedestrians to walk next to the house of Parliament." The device was operated manually by a police officer and had lights and had arm- like outward extensions. The signal was 22 feet high and on top there was a gas light called a semaphore. The arms would extend horizontally and "that commanded drivers to "Stop" and then the arms would lower to a 45 degrees angle to tell drivers to proceed with "Caution". At night a red light would command "Stop" and a green light would mean use "Caution".[7]" The device was invented by John Peake Knight a railroad engineer. After only a month of use the device exploded and injured the police officer who was operating the light. This type of signal spread to the US and according to the article Toledo Ohio was the first place to introduce this type of traffic control in 1908. Traffic signals were next used in n 1912, when a traffic control device was placed on top of a tower in Paris at the Rue Montmartre and Grande Boulevard. According to the article, "This tower signal was manned by a police woman and she operated a revolving four-sided metal box on top of a glass showcase where the word “Stop” was painted in red and the word “Go” painted in white. The traffic tower was featured in The Rider and Driver Magazine and soon the United States started to develop their own traffic control towers.[12]" The three-colored traffic signal first appeared in the City of Detroit at the intersection of Michigan and Woodward Avenues in 1920. The three-color traffic light was designed by a Detroit police officer William Potts. The article states that "He was concerned about how police officers at four different lights signals could not change their lights all at the same time. The answer was a third light that was colored amber, which was the same color used on the railroad.[13] Potts also placed a timer with the light to help coordinate a four-way set of lights in the city."
    We corroborated this information by going to an International Business article. This article confirmed the information about the signal by British Parliament. The article also discussed the 100th anniversary of the first electric traffic light which was installed on Aug. 5, 1914 on the corner of East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, “and had red and green lights and a buzzer to provide a warning that the colours were about the change." The article further noted that it was a Utah policeman Lester Wire who developed the first electric traffic light system with red and green lights in 1912. Two years later, the first electric signal was installed as noted above in Cleveland. It was based on a design by James Hoge and allowed police and fire crew to control the signals in case of emergencies. This article also described the contributions of William Potts.
    And as an interesting side note we found out that the first automatic Don’t Walk signs were installed in NYC on Feb. 5, 1952 from the site - - This site also confirmed the information we found and had several other bits of history about traffic signals.

    This was a really interesting search challenge. Who knew there were so many interesting stories behind auto turn and traffic signals?

    1. nicely written, detailed & documented Debbie and Anne -
      Canary Wharf traffic Light Tree
      til; a plane tree (in England) is a Sycamore… a signal/tree nexus—
      Platanus occidentalis

  6. The tern 'turn signal' was new to me - we call them 'indicators'.
    Pam, NZ

  7. I sent this yesterday but it seems to have vanished so here is second try

    I had lots of English motorcars 1950s and 60s. They little arms that flipped up to indicate the turn. THey were called 'trafficators' So that is where I started.

    |trafficator inventor|

    Which found a Google book called The National CV of Britain. A non-PC history of Britain.

    Says one Gladstone Adams a photographer is said to have invented the indicator.

    It also mentions traffic lights invented by J P Knight 1868

    And Wiki article

    Says they appeared in early 1900s In 1908 a chap added a light inside. The shape was that of a semaphore arm of the Bavarian State Railway 1890. It was cut in half lengthwise.

    I found the things were useless because so tiny.

    |Turn indicator inventor|

    finds Florence Lawrence invented turn indicators about 1914 which she called 'auto signalling arm' She did not correctly patent it though.

    A Buick was the first production car to be fitted with an electrical turn indicator in 1938. 1907 Percy Douglas-Hamilton applied for a patent (where?) for a device 'indicating the intended movements of vehicles'

    |traffic light inventor| finds a Wiki article: The first manually operated gas lit traffic light was installed in 1868 in London, though it was short-lived due to explosion. The first safe, automatic electric traffic lights were installed in the United States starting in the late 1890s

    |street traffic| in newspapers

    The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, November 06, 1867; Page 3 cites a proposal by J P Knight to use railway aignalling systems in London. It would use semaphore arms at intersections and pedetrian crossings and road mending. A policeman would be stationed at each place to run the things.

    Some sites claim it exploded but I can't verify this

    jon tU

  8. occurred to me to give Goo patents a go - I often forget to explore other Goo search products - I suppose "books" would be good too. Dan, any pointers on going back further; e.g., UK 1867-68?
    interesting, but not having a great deal of luck with the filters… one of the earliest U.S. examples found… didn't have much luck with the European or International filters.
    Complete with bell/audio prompt…
    Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr.
    drawing detail
    nice profile -
    GE only paid $40k??
    who knew Cleveland had its own Encyclopedia of Cleveland History…

    1913 example: Hoge

  9. one last search path - used image search with the road signal illustration you provided - that led to any number of sources… seems to be a reasonable route in some cases.
    Irish, green on top
    good description
    1868 article - has sectional elevation
    image search

  10. Here is the explanation of the explosions at the site of the street semaphore in London:

    Westminster Street Semaphore Signals.-Gas.
    The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Jan 06, 1869; pg. 10

  11. Westminster Street Semaphore Signals.-Gas.
    The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Jan 06, 1869; pg. 10

    explosions have occurred more than once in connexion with
    the street signal post at the intersection of the great tho-
    roughfares in front of Palace-yard, Westminster. The last
    of these occurred when the constable opened the box near the
    base of the pillar to turn off the gas for the night. It is
    supposed that the gas, escaping from the worn-out main or ser-
    vice pipes, had found its way into the hollow of the signal-
    post, and that the opening of the door of the pillar below
    had caused the reduced light at the top of the pillar to
    ignite the column of gas, and hence the explosion. The gas
    fittings of the pillar itself were all found in perfect condi-
    tion. The roadway all round the pillar has smelt almost
    from the time the pillar was put up, as if it were soaked
    with gas. Surely, the powers that be will take warning and
    employ means for having the condition of the mains tested
    by having them laid in subways, as recommended by Mr.
    Bazalgette, or by some other satisfactory mode?

    I still cannot find any authentic account of a constable being injured let alone killed. The signal pillar, about 20 feet tall with a red and a green gas light at the top was installed with no prior public education of how it was to operate. So it was ignored. Until it was removed apparently some weeks after its installation and frequent explosions.

    jon tU

    1. did some additional looking and found a book reference to the explosion being fatal… will split in two parts:
      still murky - even the explosion location - the hollow pole itself or below ground line leaks - either way it was an IED of sorts…
      the Jalopnik take -
      and this -
      underground explosion/injury? check "results" @ bottom of page"
      seems reliable & well sourced
      great, entertaining footage (Old London Street Scenes (1903)) from the VCH Explore site - shows why traffic control was needed a nice example of precursors to the motorized double deckers…
      worth watching…
      London traffic

      … thought I might be on to something here with the Metropolitan Police death records - used [list of london england policemen killed 1800's]
      but nothing seems to line up with the Jan. 6th, 1869 date (accident on Jan.2nd)… still fascinating read - a CoD descriptions…
      National Archives
      police records

      not sure if this will suffice, but did find this citation in the Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology
      edited by Lance Day, Ian McNeil
      … Google Books -
      dead police constable

      "No city on earth was more in need of help than London, England, already home to 1 million people. In 1866 alone more than 1,100 people were killed (and another 1,300 were wounded) in traffic accidents. With the public clamoring for a solution, British railway engineer and superintendent John Peake “J.P.” Knight testified before the British House of Commons on the need to control traffic on the city’s busy, congested streets. Parliament approved, providing funds for Knight to engineer a solution."

      here the officer is said to be seriously injured with burns to his face:
      "Initially, the new traffic signal was a success, but three weeks after the lights were erected, on 2nd January 1869 there was a disaster when a leaking gas valve caused the signal to explode. The police officer who was operating the signal suffered terrible burns to the face. The traffic lights were declared a safety hazard and removed immediately."
      12 Bridge Street.