You read that headline correctly: The first red-and-green traffic signals installed in North America were indeed again a Cleveland first in 1914 (Cleveland is the City of Light, after all). The road to get to that point began in London as far back as 1868, and the entire story brings to mind one of our favorite sayings that “necessity is indeed the mother of all invention."
So what brought about the need for an electronically colored, bright, traffic signaling system you are wondering? Well, the simple answer is speed.
When traffic consisted primarily of horses, horse-drawn carriages, foot traffic and street cars, there really was no need for serious control of traffic patterns, even at the busiest times of the day. The pace was relaxed enough that the concerns over major accidents were minimal at best.
But with the introduction of more motorized vehicles of all sorts (cars, trucks, buses etc.) and the public in general having not adjusted to the increased pace of traffic flow, it became more and more dangerous without some way of handling traffic patterns at intersections.
The Development of the Traffic Light
The earliest way of dealing with the issue was the use of traffic officers, who spent very long hours utilizing hand signals to indicate who comes and who goes. At the same time, they were inhaling the fumes that went along with the dangerous assignment of being a target in the middle of the road.
By today’s standards, the invention was underwhelming in its design and implementation, so when this first patented system was installed at the intersection of Euclid and E. 105th Street, it still required an officer to manually operate the changing of the signals from an elevated booth stationed just off the road.
This simplistic system that was patented a mere year earlier by Clevelander James Hoge allowed the operator to flip switches to change lights from red to green, oversee traffic offenses from his perch, and even flip all red lights when an emergency vehicle approached, stopping traffic in all directions and clearing the intersection for the emergency vehicle’s passing.
As you may have noticed in the narrative, there is no mention of the yellow, or “caution," light. The introduction of that feature did not occur until 1920, when it was introduced by Detroit police officer William Potts.
After the addition of the yellow light option and recognizing the need for a consistent method of linking the growing number of these lights, bigger cities began using lighting circuits in a linked way to control multiple intersections at a time.
Today, traffic signals are mostly an afterthought, even a nuisance when we are in a hurry, but after doing the research into how they began, it is yet another source of pride that the traffic signal’s roots can be traced right to our hometown’s backyard.