December 10 – Anniversary of the First Traffic Lights

Posted on December 10, 2013

Of course you know that, before there were cars, there were roads. I mean, the Ancient Romans built plenty of roads even though they didn't have Toyota trucks and school buses and convertible sports cars!

But did you know that, before there were cars, there were also traffic lights?

Today is the anniversary of the first traffic lights, which were installed on December 10, 1865, outside the Houses of Parliament in London, England. The lights were meant to control the flow of horses, pedestrians, and horse-drawn buggies.

They worked great! Until they exploded, that is!

Semaphore arms on a
railway signal
The design of the traffic lights was similar to railway signs, with three semaphore arms to communicate by their angle whether to stop or go. For nighttime use, there were red and green gas lanterns. A policeman stood next to the signal and hand-cranked the lanterns so that the appropriate color faced traffic.

Unfortunately, after a little more than a month, the gas lantern exploded and either injured or killed the policeman operating it. It was discovered that there was a leak in the gas line. At any rate, the idea of using traffic lights was abandoned for decades, until electricity was used to create better, safer traffic lights in the early 1900s.

Types of traffic lights and intersections...

With the age of the automobile, and therefore much greater speeds on city and rural roads, more and more inventions and reinventions have been attempted to make us safer.

Roundabouts are common in some places, such as in England, rather than 4-way intersections.

Three-colored traffic lights are most common around the world, with yellow light warning that the light will soon turn red. Did you know that railway 3-colored lights are deliberately in the opposite order, with green lights on top and red lights on the bottom? They are different so that the two lights could not be confused...although I think that, at nighttime, they still could be!

Some traffic lights have countdown timers, often in dial form, to show how much longer the light will stay green or red.

There are distinct traffic signals for public transport in some cities around the world. These signals are used in the Netherlands (top row) and in Belgium, France, and Germany (bottom row). From left to right, the signals mean go straight, turn left, turn right, go any direction (basically a green light), caution (basically a yellow light), stop (basically a red light).

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