They may annoy people with their ‘sudden’ changes, and journey times may sometimes be dependant on them ‘staying green’, but the truth is that deep down, everyone knows that traffic lights are a key tool in keeping roads as safe as possible, and keeping control against potential traffic chaos. But who was it that first came up with the idea of lights to tell us when we need to stop our vehicles?
It may be a surprise to some, but traffic lights have actually been in use before cars were even invented. In times when people used horses and wagons, amongst other methods of transportation, there was still a need for organisation, even in those more basic years of road travel. In 1868 in London (England), traffic enforcers managed to find a basic, yet effective device: a lantern with two different lights: one red and one green, with a policeman on hand to turn the lights over at regular intervals with a lever.
This method was useful, but the lights themselves were a danger, with some of the lanterns exploding due to being used for prolonged and alternating periods. An updated and safer version / design of the traffic light was first invented, and put to use, in 1920, by American traffic police officer William L. Potts, based in the city of Detroit. He used automated railroad signals as the inspiration for his design, to be used on four-way streets. A new colour, amber (yellow), was used in the middle of red and green (standing for ‘stop’, ‘caution’, and ‘go’).
The design would start to take off, first in the rest of Detroit, and then rapidly to the point where traffic lights are the norm on almost all areas of the world’s roads that require them. Below is an video demonstrating how these traffic lights work, as well as a bonus clip featuring classic comedy character Mr. Bean, who demonstrates exactly what not to do when faced with a red light…