'Modern' traffic light developed in Cleveland
I noticed photo lights are going to be installed at two more Medford intersections. That prompted me to ask who invented the automatic traffic signal, and what was the first city to install them?
— Murray D., Medford
Just who invented the traffic signal depends in part on which traffic signal you're referring to, Murray, because there were several iterations before the current red-yellow-green system came into being.
According to guardian.com, the first was developed by a Brit, J.P. Knight, a railway signalling engineer. His gas-powered light was installed outside the Houses of Parliament in 1868 and looked like a railway signal, with arms holding red and green lamps. That system never caught on, partly because it exploded, killing a police officer.
A variety of systems were developed by a variety of people over the following half-century. Most of them were similar to the first U.S. traffic light — installed in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914 — featuring a red light and a green light. That, too, had its drawbacks, as two vehicles on crossing streets could both be in the intersection legally at the same time, leading to some nasty collisions.
One of those collisions, witnessed by George Morgan in Cleveland, led to the development of the "modern" traffic light. Morgan was granted a patent by the U.S. Patent Office on Nov. 20, 1923, for a three-way traffic light, with a yellow caution light. He later sold rights to the lights to General Electric for $40,000.
Morgan, who was African-American (and the first black man in Cleveland to own a car), had other inventions to his name, most significant among them the prototype of the gas mask that was widely used in World War I. Morgan died in 1963 at age 86.
(Thanks also to history.com and bio.com for information on the traffic signal and Morgan.)
Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.