The Surprisingly Colourful History of Traffic Lights

Thursday July 26, 2018 Written by Leta

Lights f1

Since there have been roads, there have been traffic jams – even the streets of Ancient Rome were so clogged with chariots that the authorities had to come up with a system of traffic management. London’s been bad on that front for centuries. Something was finally done about it in December 1868, when the world’s first traffic lights, powered by gas, were installed outside the Houses of Parliament. They weren’t exactly automatic; a policeman had to manually turn the pole as required. And it was an unfortunate bobby who copped it when, about three weeks later, the contraption exploded during a gas leak.

That was the end of traffic lights for a few decades, but as more cars appeared on the roads, it was inevitable that a new system using electricity would be developed. This finally happened when a set of more modern lights was installed 100 years ago on the corner of East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. They consisted of red and green signals, plus a buzzer to warn that they were about to change. These colours seem logical to most of us, but they’re not so great for the eight per cent of the male population who are red-green colour blind. Several years ago, three Korean designers came up with a design in which the red light is triangular and therefore easy to recognise. But there’s no sign as yet that it’s being taken up by authorities.

Photo: Thomas Hawk, via Flickr Creative Commons