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Origin story: The History and Evolution of Traffic Lights

Team StoryWeavers|March 27, 2022, 11:46 IST|

Imagine a set of people having a heated discussion in a closed room. The conversation can turn into a complete mess if there is no coordinator to look after these people and guide the chatter. In such a situation, all we would hear is random shouting and noise, as no one would want to be left behind, so everyone would try to express their point of view without considering what the other person has to say. This kind of situation would ultimately lead to total chaos.

Now, imagine the same situation taking place on our roads, and simply replace the set of people with vehicles.  If people were to drive their cars randomly without caring about or considering other vehicles on the road, it could lead to chaos and may result in accidents; the end result can be catastrophic.

Enter traffic lights, which play the role of coordinators on the road. They control the flow of the ever-increasing number of automobiles on the road and they also help in preventing accidents.

Today we’re covering the origin of the often overlooked traffic light and giving some insight into how they evolved over time. 

The Early Beginnings of Traffic Lights 

Although the purpose of a traffic signal is to regulate the flow of automobiles, traffic signals came into existence long before automobiles were invented. The idea for developing traffic signals began in the 1800s. And on December 10 1868, the first gas-lit traffic lights were installed outside the Houses of Parliament in London. This model was proposed by a British railway engineer, J.P Knight. It was implemented to control the traffic of horse carriages in the area and to allow pedestrians to safely cross the roads.

The gas-fueled lights needed to be manually controlled by a police officer using semaphore arms. During the daytime, the semaphore arms would be raised or lowered by the police officer, signalling to carriages whether they should proceed or stop.  At night, instead of arms, gas-lit red and green lights were used. Red signalled carriages to stop, and green meant to proceed. Red was used to stop, as it represented danger or caution, whereas green was determined to be a more reassuring colour in most cultures and also has a strong emotional correspondence with safety.

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The First Electric Traffic Lights

In the early 1900s, the world was developing at a very rapid pace, and with the growth of industrialization, cities became more crowded. Furthermore, with the invention of automobiles, the traffic on the roads increased significantly, so there was a need for a better traffic system.

It was in the year 1912 when the idea of the possibility of having an electric traffic light popped into the head of an American police officer named Lester Wire.

By the time 1914 came around, the first electric traffic light had become a reality and was installed in the city of Cleveland, Ohio. 

The first electric traffic light had only red and green lights; it did not have a yellow light like modern-day traffic signals. Instead of a yellow light, it had a buzzer sound that was used to indicate that the signal would be changing soon.

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Automatic Traffic Lights 

Despite being electric rather than gas-powered, these early lights still required someone to operate them and manually switch the colours of the lights. 

By the time the year 1920 rolled around, automatic traffic lights had become a huge success.

They operated by changing their lights at fixed intervals of time. This sometimes caused unnecessary waiting for vehicles as the light would be red even when there were no vehicles passing from the opposite side. 

To remedy this, a microphone was mounted on the pole of the signal. And once the vehicle reached the signal, all it needed to do was honk and the light would change.

However, this obviously led to the problem of unnecessary honking of vehicles. Thus, the honk-sensitive lights had to be abolished.

Check out this video on traffic lights and traffic rules:

The Computerization of Traffic Lights

In the 1960s, with the invention of computers, traffic lights started to become computerized. Over time, computers improved, and based on the software, the traffic of a city could now be predicted and accordingly controlled.

At present, traffic all over the world can be monitored, which gives an idea about the traffic at a certain time, which city has the most traffic, and what the peak hours of traffic are, so the lights can be controlled accordingly.

Countdown Timer

The countdown timer was introduced to traffic lights in the 1990s. The countdown timer helps pedestrians know whether they have enough time to cross the road before the signal changes colour.

The Future of Traffic Lights

The number of vehicles on the road has been drastically increasing every year and will continue to increase, so traffic signals must continue to improve to accommodate these higher amounts of traffic.

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Connected Vehicles

In the future, we will have connected vehicles that will be able to communicate with traffic signals and other vehicles. As the cars would be able to communicate with traffic signals, this would allow them to know whether they can make it in time to the next signal before it turns red; the signal can also urge you to speed up in order to make the signal on time.

Eventually, a time could come when signals will ask the cars where they are going and change traffic plans accordingly.

Traffic signals will improve over time. There is no doubt about that. And they will continue to provide safer and faster commutes for vehicles.

However, it will still all be a waste if we don’t follow traffic rules. Most accidents occur as a result of breaking traffic rules. So, let’s make a pledge to follow traffic rules to ensure a smooth and safe drive for everyone on the road!

About the Author


Raza has been writing since 2008, be it fiction, poetry, or articles on science, politics, and history. He believes that words can change the world, and he uses them to inspire and empower people through his writing. When he is not working, he is watching nature documentaries or playing with his cats.

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