The world’s first traffic light was installed on December 10, 1868 outside the British Houses of Parliament in London by a railway engineer named J.P. Knight. Unfortunately the lamp, which ran on gas, exploded on January 2, 1869, either injuring or killing the policeman operating it. The modern electric traffic light was invented by Lester Wire, an American policeman, in 1912 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The design was simple, consisting of a green light for go and a red light for stop. Since then there have been other interesting ideas.
Timers in traffic lights, especially for crosswalks, are common in cities all over the world, however there are always different ways to warn pedestrians and drivers alike when a change is coming, besides the standard numerical countdown. Here is a rendering of the Eko traffic light, designed by Damjan Stankovic, which ticks off red squares until the light turns green.
As he told The Daily Mail:
Since you know exactly how long you have to wait you can sit back and clear your head for a while. No need to keep your foot on the gas. Relax. When you think about it, you don’t need this information counted in seconds, you just need to see the speed of the progress bar to give you an estimate of the time.
In Tianjin, China, two special traffic light systems were installed in 1999 and 2000. In one scheme, a red bar (above) steadily shrinks, indicating how much time is left before a color change. When the green bar is down to one third, it flashes, notifying drivers of the coming change. the second system (below) is made up of three lights, each pointing in a different direction. The color of the arrows indicate whether it is safe to proceed in that direction. You’ll notice that this second system would not work well for color blind drivers, however Chinese traffic laws prohibit those with color blindness from driving.
Of course colorblindness can be a real problem in countries that give licenses to those who may not be able to distinguish green, yellow and red. We must also remember that there’s no license required to cross a street. UNISignal attempts to solve this color-recognition issue. By making each light a different shape (stop a triangle, green a square and yellow a circle), designers are hoping to make the signals even more clear.
Have you ever gotten lucky and had nothing but green lights for a long stretch? It wasn’t quite luck — you were most likely driving at an optimal speed for that road and rode what’s called a “green wave.” A few cities like Newberg, Oregon, Karkow, Poland and Kiev, Ukraine have installed signs that display what speed a driver should drive to catch the next green wave.
Traffic lights can also be part of a culture. On some pedestrian traffic lights in East Berlin you can see “Ampelmännchen,” meaning “little traffic light man” in German. The symbol, created by traffic psychologist Karl Peglau in 1961, is one of the last remaining from East Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1990 and is still an icon for the city.
The Virtual Wall is perhaps the most radical re-envisioning of the traffic light, using a beam of lasers to project a red wall depicting pedestrians in front of cars. As designer Hanyoung Lee writes on his website, “Traffic accidents are among the major causes of death in Korea,” and he believes one cause is the increasingly aggressive advertising in urban areas distracting drivers and pedestrians from traffic signals. His concept would certainly gets the message across and violators piercing the “wall” would be easy to spot.
Another, Korean designer Li Ming Hsing, has designed a traffic light that both suggests pedestrians stretch during downtime and to look both ways even when the light is green. “At the traffic light, children tend to run across the street right after the signal turning into green, or even before the light changed,” explains Li Ming Hsing. “[That’s why] if we add ‘the graphic of looking for cars toward both sides, right and left,’ at green signal, we can warn children before they cross the street and that can prevent our children from car accidents.” You can even watch as the animated person jumps from one square to the other.