Thursday, March 27, 2008

Cleveland: Birthplace of the First Electric Traffic Signal?

Morgan's Patented Design

Some sources claim that the first traffic light was NOT in Cleveland, as earlier signals had been used in London England in 1868, and another version in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1912. But, there is one consistent design and name that comes up, Garrett Augustus Morgan, whose design was patented on November 23, 1923. Morgan, born in 1877 in Kentucky, was the son of former slaves. He later moved to Cincinnati, and then Cleveland, where he owned and operated a sewing-machine repair business. He also went on to establish the newspaper The Cleveland Call.

During the early 20th century, the streets in Cleveland, as in other major U.S. cities, were jammed with pedestrians, bicycles, animal-drawn wagons, and then later with cars. This often meant that all these vehicles and people were trying to use the same stretch of roads and intersections at the same time, all with no traffic signals to help control the flow. This made for frequent accidents. After Morgan witnessed one such traffic accident, he felt the need to come up with a solution. This resulted in his invention of a traffic signal. Looking different than traffic lights we have today, the Morgan design was a T-shaped pole unit that featured three positions: Stop, Go and an all-directional stop position. The “all stop” position halted all road traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross streets. Morgan’s invention, with the "all stop," essentially allowed for a third “caution”-type signal, which was something new from previous designs. He eventually sold the rights to his invention to General Electric, and received a government citation for his invention.

Other sources say the first traffic signal came even before Morgan’s invention. The American Traffic Signal Co. installed, on August 5, 1914, the first set of traffic signals, at East 105th street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. It was based on the patented (January 1918) design of James Hoge, which displayed the words STOP and MOVE. It was a system of electrically powered stop-go indicators, each mounted on a corner post, wired to a manually operated switch housed inside a control booth. The signals were electrically interlocked , making conflicting signals impossible.

There are some web sites that debunk Morgan as being the inventor of the first traffic signal, (one example is here. ), but generally many agree that Morgan’s design was a precursor of what we use today in modern times. There are several others who claim to be the first and many have had earlier patents than Morgan’s. As a result, it’s hard to say who really was the first, but for Clevelanders, it seems that the first basic traffic signal – at least in Ohio – was the light at East 105th and Euclid on 1914, based on Hoge’s design.

Here’s a link to an article on the first Cleveland traffic signal.

Check out my blog home page for the latest Cleveland information, here.


Shawn Fowler said...

My great grandfather Andrew Bessick was a Cleveland traffic cop. I have an article from "The Ohio Motorist, Automobile Show Number, January, 1928" that is entitled "A Light Replaces a Semaphore". The article is about my Great Grandfather and the replacement of his semaphore at N.E. Superior and E. 6th Street. Its a pretty neat article. He operated that intersection since May of 1923. Thanks for the read on the history of the traffic light.

Speaking to Your Spirit, original posts by Chynna said...

Bessick is a very uncommon last name. We may be related.