The Inventor of the Traffic Light William L. Potts

Traffic Light Definition: A road signal for directing vehicular traffic by means of colored lights, typically red for stop, green for go, and yellow for proceed with caution.

At a Glance:

traffic light GIFPolice Officer William L. Potts of Detroit, Michigan, decided to do something about the problem caused by the ever increasing number of automobiles on the streets. What he had in mind was figuring out a way to adapt railroad signals for street use. Potts used red, amber, and green railroad lights and about thirty-seven dollars worth of wire and electrical controls to make the world’s first 4-way three color traffic light. It was installed in 1920 on the corner of Woodward and Michigan Avenues in Detroit. Within a year, Detroit had installed a total of fifteen of the new automatic lights.

The Story:
Even during the horse and buggy days, traffic in big cities was often heavy. Police officers had to be stationed full time directing traffic at busy intersections.

The world’s first traffic light came into being before the automobile was in use, and traffic consisted only of pedestrians, buggies, and wagons.  Installed at an intersection in London in 1868, it was a revolving lantern with red and green signals.  Red meant “stop” and green meant “caution.”  The lantern, illuminated by gas, was turned by means of a lever at its base so that the appropriate light faced traffic.  On January 2, 1869, this crude traffic light exploded, injuring the policeman who was operating it.

With the coming of automobiles, the situation got even worse. Police Officer William L.  Potts of Detroit, Michigan, decided to do something about the problem.  What he had in mind was figuring out a way to adapt railroad signals for street use.  The railroads were already utilizing automatic controls. But railroad traffic traveled along parallel lines.  Street traffic traveled at right angles. Potts used red, amber, and green railroad lights and about thirty-seven dollars worth of wire and electrical controls to make the world’s first 4-way three color traffic light. It was installed in 1920 on the corner of Woodward and Michigan Avenues in Detroit. Within a year, Detroit had installed a total of fifteen of the new automatic lights.

At about the same time, Garrett Morgan of Cleveland, Ohio realized the need to control the flow of traffic. A gifted inventor and reportedly the first African American to own an automobile in Cleveland, Ohio, he invented the electric automatic traffic light. Though it looked more like the semaphore signals you see at train crossings today.

Many others had obtained US Patents for Traffic Signals, some as early as 1918. But Morgan’s Patent was purchased by General Electric Corporation and provided the protection they needed to begin building a monopoly on traffic light manufacture.

worlds first signal tower traffic light signal

The first signal tower with automatic lights, at Michigan and Woodward

Fun Facts:

The Morgan traffic signal was a T-shaped pole unit that featured three positions: Stop, Go and an all-directional stop position. This “third position” halted traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross streets more safely.traffic signal light GIF

Morgan’s traffic management device was used throughout North America until it was replaced by the red, yellow and green-light traffic signals currently used around the world.

Morganr sold the rights to his traffic signal to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000.

Shortly before his death, in 1963, Morgan was awarded a citation for his traffic signal by the United States Government.

Garrett Morgan earned US Patent No.1,475,024 issued November 20, 1923 fot his traffic signal

Tagged with:

Filed under: Traffic History

Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!