The history of traffic lights

Andrew Newbound

By: Andrew Newbound

The red, amber and green lights for controlling traffic have become iconic. Traffic lights control vehicles at a lot of junctions across the world and have arguably become the greatest annoyance to motorists. This August sees the 101st anniversary of the first electric traffic lights being installed.

The first traffic lights were installed outside the Houses of Parliament in London on 9 December 1868. The lights were gas lanterns controlled by traffic policemen using a lever; however, the lights were often blown out. The gas light exploded on 2 January 1869 due to a gas leak resulting in the policeman being injured and the gas traffic lights were abandoned.

Developed by Utah policeman Lester Wire, the first electric traffic light system was installed on 5 August 1914, featuring only red and green colours on the corner of East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. Today’s Google Doodle celebrates this original traffic light system.

Developing upon the original, James Hoge had his patent approved for a buzzer to signal the change from red to green at traffic lights in 1918. The design by Hoge also helped the emergency services to control the traffic system.

In 1920, the first four-way red, amber and green traffic light was installed in Detroit, Michigan. The first automatically controlled interconnected traffic lights were installed in Houston, Texas in 1922. England got its first traffic light system installed at Piccadilly Circus in 1926.

Countdown timers were installed in the 1990s helping pedestrians to plan their walk across the road, with this system heavily used in the US.

Traffic lights have become so important to our culture that in 1998 sculptor Pierre Vivant created a traffic light tree standing at eight metres tall and featuring 75 sets of traffic lights installed at Canary Wharf in London.