Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Who Invented the Traffic Light? Was it a Salt Laker?

Did the world's first traffic signal originate at this 200 S. Main, Salt Lake City, intersection in 1912? Some believe it did.
By Lynn Arave

AT a first glance, it seems a bit odd to lump London, Cleveland, Detroit and Salt Lake City together.
But, sure enough, the cities do indeed have something in common. Only one of the following statements is factual:
A) Mormon pioneers considered each of the cities as their headquarters after leaving Nauvoo.
B) They are all located above the 41st parallel in latitude.
C) Each says its city is where the world's first traffic light was invented.
D) They all have large lakes nearby.
E) Fans of their professional teams are renowned for peppering the playing surface and officials with bottles and trash.
Give up? Here's a clue — children wouldn't play the popular kids' game "Red Light/Green Light" if one or all of these cities hadn't made this partial claim to fame.
If you guessed "All of the above," sorry, that wasn't an option. If you selected A, B and D, try again. If you picked E, well, that's unfortunately true for Salt Lake City and Cleveland, but Detroit is famous for post-championship riots and London fans are infamous for tearing down stadiums after soccer losses.
If you chose C, pat yourself on the back. They all believe their cities were the innovators of the traffic light. Let the debate begin.
To shed some, um, light on the subject, London has the oldest claim, dating back to 1868 (or about the last time most people believe they actually caught a green turn arrow at the right time). Funny enough, this was even before the invention of the automobile. The English weren't ahead of themselves, the revolving gas lantern was reportedly used to direct horse-drawn traffic in front of Parliament. (No word on whether the Brits are saying they invented the pooper-scooper, too.)
The English version was short-lived. The volatile apparatus exploded on Jan. 2, 1869, and injured the policeman who was operating it. Feeling burned, they didn't start it up again until after electricity came along.
Forty-plus years later, Lester F. Wire, head of Salt Lake City's traffic squad, came up with his own electric-powered traffic light invention — one the Utah State Historical Society and Utah Department of Transportation claim was the world's first.
The signal, which began operating in 1912 at 200 South and Main Street, resembled a birdhouse. Seems that local folk weren't impressed by the contraption. It was a curiosity and nuisance to them. At first, most drivers didn't even stop when they should (not much has changed). Only visitors from larger cities apparently appreciated it, according to historical reports.
The early 1910s were the days of ultimate traffic freedom and chaos — drive anywhere and do anything, make U-turns anywhere, go down either side of the street, scare pedestrians with your horseless carriage. Children sledded on city streets in winter.
Finally, Wire decided to appoint a patrolman to stand at Main and 200 South, the busiest of Utah intersections in that day. The officer stood in the middle on a small platform and gave equal time to traffic going each way. However, the inclement weather officers faced prompted Wire to find a better way.
After some experimentation in 1912, the 25-year-old Wire developed his bright-yellow-colored birdhouse-shaped signal with red and green lights on all four sides. It was mounted on a 10-foot-tall metal pole. An officer at the base still had to manually control the switches of this invention, known as "Wire's Bird Cage" and "Wire's Pigeon House," according to research by Linda Thatcher of the Utah State Historical Society in 1982.
Wire improved his creation with a cupola where a police officer could sit in a chair under an umbrella and control the light. Later Wire used the smokestack from an old locomotive train for the stoplight frame.
Ninety years later, locals have been complaining that downtown traffic lights aren't coordinated ever since.
Detroit checks in third with a traffic light similar to a railroad signal that was in place in 1920.
Police officer William Potts adapted a railroad signal for street use to relieve traffic congestion on the corner of Woodward and Michigan avenues. Within a year, Detroit had 15 such lights in place.
Cleveland saysGarrett Augustus Morgan invented the traffic signal in the early 1920s. Backing their claim is the fact that Morgan applied for a patent to the concept in 1923. His lights were automated and his invention was eventually sold to General Electric for $40,000.
The controversy doesn't even end with these four cities. New York City says its signals were working in 1918, and Paris says it was the "City of Traffic Lights" in 1923.
So, who really invented the traffic light? Does it really even matter?
Probably not. But at least you have something else to mull over now while waiting for the red light to turn green. And according to UDOT, that wait could be anywhere from 20 seconds (average downtown) to a minute and a half or more (longest lights). And you could be waiting at one of 650 total traffic signals in Salt Lake County, 150 in Salt Lake City or 45 lights on Street from North Temple to Draper.
And no offense to Wire, but at least you won't be waiting at a 


(-Revised from a Dec. 25, 2002 article by Lynn Arave and 

Jody Genessy, the Deseret News.)

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at: lynnarave@comcast.net  

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