This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Friday, May 15, 2009

History of Traffic Lights

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

This is one of the first traffic lights used in Charleston, SC. It is a Novalux Traffic Signal made by General Motors in the 1920's. The light is now housed in the Charleston Historical Museum. Judging by the looks of it, the light appears to be quite heavy.

In the early 20th century, the roads in all the major cities were chaotic with no traffic laws for the many pedestrians, bicycles, animal-drawn carriages and wagons. As you can imagine, accidents happened often, which prompted a few inventors to find a way to restore a little order.

Technically, the first traffic light was a revolving gas lantern with red and green lights installed at a London intersection in 1868, long before automobiles were invented.

In 1912, Lester Wire, a Salt Lake police officer invented an electric traffic light that was the first hand-made model in a wooden box on a pole. It had a slanted roof so rain and snow would slide off. The lights illuminated through red and green dyed circular openings.

In 1920, an improved version was developed based on railroad signals and installed in Detroit, Michigan.

In 1914, Garrett Augustus Morgan invented the first traffic light similar to our modern version with a stop traffic mechanism. It was a T-shaped pole unit that had three positions: Stop, Go, and All-Direction Stop for pedestrians. He eventually sold his rights to his traffic light invention to General Motors and it was used through the United States. At least 60 traffic lights were patented before Morgan's was patented in 1923, but Morgan is often incorrectly credited with the traffic light invention.

Morgan was born in 1877 in Kentucky, the son of former slaves. He moved to Ohio, where he owned and operated a sewing-machine repair business. Morgan also developed several other inventions.

In 1920, William Potts, a Detroit policeman, developed a red-yellow-green light signal systems that was manned by policement. It is remarkably similar to the modern traffic light.

For more detailed information and research, check out the sites below:


I couldn't even begin to imagine going through busy intersections back when there were no traffic lights. Granted there were no cars but the stress of it alone probably would've killed me.

I have enough trouble driving with the aid of modern technology lol

Interesting post. Traffic lights are something we take for granted. I've never stopped to think of how difficult it must have been for drivers and pedestrians before they came into common use.

Well I lived back when there were not many traffic lights and they were only in a town, I lived in the county where the road was not paved and we had to walk to a little country store to get gro. just the things that we didn't grow, well let me say my Mom didn't grow, I was the baby and my Mom was 45 when I came alone and I had 9 older siblings. So yes I remeber al lot about the old times as I grew up in them in rural SC.


Delia, It would have been hard, but actually there were cars. They didn't have intersection lights even though they did have cars. There was mixture of cars, carriages, wagons, bicycles and pedestrians in the larger cities.

Edna, That's how my mom describes NC where she lived in the rural county area. She was also working in the tobacco fields as early as six years old.

Every corner in a major city had a traffic cop. This was before union scale police salaries.