When Was the First Traffic Light Installed? 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

the First Traffic Light


Can you believe it? The electronic traffic light turns 101 on August 5. The first red and green lights were installed in Cleveland, Ohio, on August 5, 1914. The original design, though, came from a Salt Lake City cop named Lester Wire. He came up with the idea in 1912. The momentous occasion of the 101st anniversary of the traffic light is celebrated in the August 5 Google Doodle.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Originally, There Was No Yellow Light

The installation of a traffic light in San Diego in December 1940. (Wikipedia)

The installation of a traffic light in San Diego in December 1940. (Wikipedia)

When Lester Wire first conceived of his traffic light idea, he didn’t dream of a yellow light. On his invention, when the light was about to change, a series of buzzes and bells would go off. At the time, according to the History Channel, a motor magazine in Cleveland wrote:

This 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.

The bell was added at the suggestion of another man, James Hope, and his addition also included a way for police to manipulate the lights in case of emergencies. That light was first installed at East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. Since 1914, the traffic light spread across the world. The oldest working traffic light is in a museum in Ashville, Ohio.

2. Timers for Pedestrians Are a Requirement in the U.S. but Illegal for Drivers



The countdown timer has been a feature of traffic lights in the United States since the 1990s, the first appearing in Hampton, Virginia, in 1996. Timers are based on the idea of lessening jaywalking-related accidents by telling pedestrians how long they have to walk across a street. Nowadays, all new traffic lights have to include this function. It’s illegal for a light to tell a driver how long he or she has to wait for a green or red light, for obvious reasons, though timers for drivers are prevalent in Thailand. The Institute of Transportation Engineers produced a 2006 report that showed the introduction of timers for pedestrians decreased accidents by 52 percent.

3. The First Traffic Lights in England Had to Be Abandoned After They Killed a Cop

A London Bobby in 1926. (Getty)

A London Bobby in 1926. (Getty)

The very original idea for a traffic controlling system came in England back in 1868 when a gas light was installed outside of the Houses of Parliament to control the flow of horse traffic. It was minus electricity so had to be changed by hand by a London police officer. Everything seemed to be going well until a month into the project when a gas leak caused an explosion. The police officer operating it was killed and the idea was abandoned. A traffic light would not reappear in England until 1926 when electric lights were used in Piccadilly Circus.

4. General Electric Owns the Patent on Traffic Signaling, After Buying It From Garrett Morgan

The General Electric Building in Ohio. (Getty)

The General Electric Building in Ohio. (Getty)

The invention of the traffic signals for stop-and-go are the source of much debate, according to the History Channel. Despite the aforementioned adoption of the signals in London in the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1923 when inventor Garrett Morgan (he of gas mask mega-fame) patented it. The History Channel says that he sold his patent to General Electric for $40,000. GE still sells a large variety of traffic lights.

5. Red-Light Running in America Costs the Public $14 Billion Each Year

history of the traffic light, the first traffic light

A pedestrian-crossing signal shows a female homosexual couple at a junction in Munich, Germany. The city introduced the new signals at a number of traffic lights in the city for a gay pride march and has decided to keep them. The figures glow in red and green at pedestrian crosswalks and show both female and male couples. (Getty)

According to the public information website Red Means Red, red-light running is the leading cause of car accidents in urban areas in America. These accidents end up costing taxpayers $14 billion. Around 165,000 injuries and nearly 1,000 deaths are attributed to this seemingly minor offense. Across America, over three people run a red light every hour. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that 55 percent of Americans admit to running red lights.