Who Invented the Traffic Lights?

The Traffic signal in Cleveland

Traffic lights/traffic signals are located in major areas of cities and towns around the world. The red, yellow, and green lights indicate that when it is safe to drive through the intersection when to walk across as well as when to stop and let other drivers, bikers and pedestrians take their turn.

To appreciate the achievements these silent appliances perform, let us take a quick tour through the basic history of traffic lights.

What is the History Behind Traffic Lights?

The main purpose of the first traffic lights was a remedy to overcrowding and speeding on streets, which leads to major chaos, crashes, accidents, and even deaths in major cities of the world.

It is shown by the research that in 1913, more than 4,000 people died in car-related crashes. All the automobiles, carriages, bicyclists, trucks, buses, trolleys, and pedestrians were all screaming for space. Major roads in U.S. cities were failing miserably to handle the volume and speed of traffic.

Deaths and population rates, 1913-2019. Credits: National Safety Council

Necessarily, these confusions & chaos led to collisions. Police officers blown whistles or waved arms at dangerous intersections were also not helping. The only solution for fast-industrializing cities was a reliable and non-human system that could handle volume & speed of traffic effectively & efficiently and be beneficial for safe driving and road-sharing.

ALSO READLeft-Side Driving: Ancient Days & Modern Road Network

Who Invented the First Traffic Light?

J.P. Knight, William Potts, Lester Wire, and Garrett Morgan are all names you might have heard concerning the invention of traffic signals. In one way or another, these talented men did contribute to the modern-day, innovative electrical traffic light design.

They each improved & contributed their roles on the design and use of the traffic signals in the early part of the 20th century:

  • December 8th, 1868 — J.P. Knight, a British railway engineer, suggested management of the flow of horse carriages around the Houses of Parliament. His idea got inspired by the railway signaling system, which ultimately helped pedestrians to cross the road safely. These were gas-powered lights that were operated manually by a police officer by using semaphore arms. In addition, they were also working as a safety hazard as the gas-light would explode and can injure nearby officers & people.

Despite its huge triumph in controlling volume & speed of traffic, it wasn’t durable, and it went up in a gas explosion in 1869, a year after its installation.

  • 1914 — There is much confusion about this. Some sources credit James Hoge, while others credit the world’s first electric stoplight to an American policeman named Lester Wire. Furthermore, the signals system comprehended into the electricity lines of local “trollies” or trams. This was the first municipal control system, which was installed at Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland, Ohio.
  • 1920 — Next, a Detroit police officer named William Potts established the first four-way and three-colored traffic lights. Detroit was the first American city to follow this traffic light system.
  • 1923 — Garrett Morgan embraced and received a patent for the three-position electric traffic signal. He, later on, sold this to some General Electric company for $40,000.

The different colors of traffic lights:

  • Red arrows in combination with green arrows — These arrows usually indicate that you can only take a right turn on a green arrow.
  • Flashing red — This arrow indicated to come to a full stop at a four-way intersection, as you would with a stop indication.
  • Flashing yellow — This indicates to take caution & care while driving.
  • Flashing yellow arrows — This shows that after watching the protected green turn signal, you can take a turn after yielding to pedestrians and traffic.


Traffic lights are such a great achievement as a standard for motion that even a small child can tell you that red means “ to stop!”, green means “go!”

However, it took many years to create this instant recognition & adapt to this signal system as drivers’ behaviors changed with traffic systems on the road.

One of the most beneficial ways to take good steps as a driver is to use a defensive driving course. With just a few hours of instruction, you’ll be able to drive safer, much smoother & make better decisions & choices while driving on the roads today.

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