Happy 100th Birthday to the World's First Patented Electric Traffic Light

A design based on James Hoge's creation debuted in Cleveland on August 5, 1914.

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A look at traffic in Detroit shortly after Cleveland got its first electric signal. (Library of Congress)

A century ago today, drivers on East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland were first treated to one of the most exciting traffic innovations of the time—an electric traffic light.

Installed by the American Traffic Signal Company on August 5, 1914, the technological innovation let booth attendants control the red and green lights at each corner of the intersection. To warn everyone of a signal change, a buzzer would go off before the color switch. When the light was red, the sign would say STOP. When green, it read PROCEED.

It was based on a design by James Hoge, a Cleveland resident who submitted an application for a patent in September, 1913. Approved in 1918, his creation was the first electric traffic signal to be patented. 

Lester Wire of Salt Lake City, however, gets credit for actually creating the first electric-powered traffic signal. Wire was a member of the city police's traffic squad in 1912, and his creation used electricity from overhead trolley wires to power its green and red lights. When Salt Lake City celebrated the 100th anniversary of Wire's invention two years ago, a state DOT representative shared that Wire was unable to see a patent process through after being drafted into military service during World War I. He died in 1958.

As for the yellow light we all take for granted, it did not appear until Detroit police officer William Potts came up with the idea in 1920.

Below, courtesy of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a look at Hoge's invention and his descriptions of each element as described in his patent application:

"A perspective view of a street crossing with the signals of the system of my invention installed." (USPTO)
"A plan of the business section of a city showing fire and police central stations togather with a plurality of traffic control stations and fire and police telegraph and telephone connections." (USPTO)
"A diagrammatic illustration of the system as a whole." (USPTO)
"A plan view showing that portion of the system comprising the signals and the various connections at a single station." (USPTO)
"A sectional view of a traffic control signal box." (USPTO)
"A view of a traffic officer's booth showing an automatic emergency flag adapted to be dropped into view when the emergency whistle or other signal is sounded." (USPTO)

 

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