By Matt Schmitz on August 5, 2014
In our fast-paced world where we're always on the go, we might forget to slow down and stop to reflect on how we got to here. Take traffic signals, for example. Such a safe and orderly (most of the time) system for moving high volumes of motorized vehicles through an intersection didn't always exist. In fact, today marks what is popularly agreed upon as the 100th anniversary of the world's first electric traffic signal.
The first electric traffic signal was installed Aug. 5, 1914, at the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland, according to the History Channel's website, history.com. Based on a design by James Hoge, who received the U.S. patent for his device in 1918, the "Municipal Traffic Control System" comprised four pairs of red and green lights that served as stop-and-go indicators, each mounted on a corner post and operated by a switch inside a control booth, configured to make conflicting signals impossible. This invention brought to an end a growing problem in the early days of automobiles, when pedestrians, bicycles, horses and streetcars all converged on the same roadways, the History Channel states.
"Cleveland, at this time, was undergoing great development and population growth," said Tom Rieder of the Ohio History Connection, in an interview with Cars.com. "Industry and manufacturing were expanding, and Cleveland was the United States' second city in production of automobiles, behind Detroit."
Rieder surmised that Hoge's invention might have been born out of frustration from an early version of a daily driving nuisance we still know well today: the traffic jam.
"Hoge's family home was on 107th Street, near Euclid Avenue, and offices of his company, Automatic Signal and Appliance Co., were west of 105th and Euclid," Rieder said. "A guess on my part, Hoge thought that the traffic signal would improve his commute."
The inventor died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1926, just a few years after another Clevelander, Garrett Morgan, patented the three-position traffic signal that we all know so well today. Rieder said that, to him, that light and its sale to GE, which mass produced it, "seems more important to the history and production of traffic signals."
The honor of being the site of the world's first traffic light, of course, depends to some degree on to whom you talk. Two years ago, Salt Lake City celebrated its own claim to the title when the Utah Department of Transportation unveiled a commemorative replica of the device invented by Lester Wire in 1912. Though his device didn't get the U.S. patent, Wire's device debuted first, at the intersection of Main Street and 200 South, the Salt Lake Tribune reported in October 2012.
"Wire's invention looked like a large birdhouse with lights dipped in green and red paint and placed into circular holes on each side," the newspaper reported. "It was manually operated with a police officer standing next to the signal mounted on a 10-foot pole."
Today the traffic signal is far more advanced with sensors of all kinds, but the joy of getting that green light right when you "need" it most is likely the same euphoria Clevelanders experienced 100 years ago.
Cars.com illustration by Paul Dolan; Serghei Velusceac/Hemera/Thinkstock; Zoonar RF/Zoonar/Thinkstock
News Editor Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers. Email Matt