Anson Record | Defaming the privy: History of the traffic light

If you met another automobile on a one-lane dirt road in 1895, there was no law to give you or the approaching car the right to stay in the narrow road. One of you was going into the soft shoulder, while the other slogged merrily on. The right of way went to the boldest or the most intimidating. By 1912 there were nearly a half-million cars on the roads.

Looking at the intersection of Main and 200 South, it seemed to officer Lewis Wire that every car in Salt Lake City was honking and shouting at one other. At 22 years old, the police officer had been directed to untangle this mess. There were no laws to state that the first driver to reach an intersection earned the right to blaze on through, nor that autos turning left had to wait for oncoming traffic to pass. His stopgap solution was the officer he had sent to stand in the middle of the intersection, indicating right of way to pedestrians, horses and wagons, trucks, as well as all those cars.

The task of keeping safe drivers safe and determined , errant ones calm — in the heat and rain of the summer, and the cold and snow of winter — was wearing his officers out. Wire had no idea of what he would do.

But one night when opened his Bible, his eyes fell on “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candle stick, and it giveth light unto all.”

“Of course,” he said. “A light. On a stick. High up.” He leaned back and stroked his chin. The trolley tracks came to mind, where a bright red light on a grey disk swung back and forth to warn cross traffic to stop. The red wig-wag signal light swung from a point high enough to be seen for blocks. It glowed with current from the trolley lines, suspended high over the tracks.

At crossings, railroad engineers had the benefit of wooden cross-bars to warn drivers , but they used a system of electric lights to warn themselves about danger on the tracks. A red electric signal warned them to stop the train. A green one told them it was safe to go on through, and a yellow signal warned them to take caution, to slow down and watch for hazards.

“Some drivers obey hand signals from one another,” Lewis said to himself. “So they might obey a signal light from me.” Lewis stood up, walked to his writing desk and drew a sketch of his electric traffic light. It would be square, with one side facing each of the four crossing roads. It would have two lights on each side: red on top; green on bottom. He would coat his bulbs red and green, perhaps with a thin coat of varnish tinted with food coloring. He would run zip cord from the gutta percha light sockets to knife switches, so that the officer could cause the north-south lights to glow red or green at the same time. Another switch would cause the east-west lights to glow red or green together.

He took his idea to the chief, who told him to build it and let him see the results. Wire built the square enclosure for his traffic light from boards 18 inches wide and three feet tall. He nailed them together, and put shed roof over them, to protect the components from the weather. He installed the switches, and tested his invention using house current, then took his traffic to the police department to show to the chief.

Before Lewis turned his traffic light on, he set all the lights to glow red.

“Let the north side go,” the Chief said.

Lewis pulled a switch; the north-south glowed green.

The Chief moved to see.

“Uh, huh,” he said. “Now let’s see east-west.”

Lewis flipped the north-south switch to red, and the east-west one to green.

The chief nodded. “Now stop east-west.”

Lewis stopped east-west, and let north-south go.

“OK,” the chief said. “What do the officers say?”

“I’ll show it to them and let you know.”

When Lewis showed his invention and his drawings to the officers, they were not overwhelmed.

“I hope it works,” one of them said. “But if it makes cars stop and go, we can direct traffic from the shack.”

He reported back to the chief.

“If it works, they’ll love it,” he said. “Now let’s see that shack.”

Lewis showed him the plans for 6-by-6-foot wooden building with a shed roof.

“It looks just like your traffic light,” the chief smiled.

“It does,” Lewis said. “But it works well.”

The chief nodded as he looked at the drawing. “ Run those windows floor to ceiling,” the chief said. Get them up high.”

Lewis made notes.

After the shack was built to the chief’s specifications, he signed off on the request to place the pole in the middle of the intersection, and another to have power run from the trolley grid to the control shack.

As soon as the work was completed, Lewis Wire gathered his officers for a test. He had one officer stand near the pole and direct traffic, while another operated the lights from inside the control shack. The cars seemed to follow the signals.

“The first electric traffic signal in the United States?” the police chief asked

“Yes, sir. It is.”

The chief put himself behind the project, the officers remained hopeful. As it turned out, the drivers developed an opinion of their own.

When the officers tried to run the signal without an officer in the center of the intersection, they realized the drivers had been following the officer and not Wire’s traffic light. They refused to even to look in its direction, but even so that traffic light made them see red. To avoid complete chaos, Wire re-assigned officers to direct traffic, but kept his light in place. Re-assigning the officers did not placate the drivers. Angry with a mere machine that had ordered them to stop, many of the drivers began to mistreat the messenger. No one fired a shotgun at the messenger on a pole, no one splattered it with a tomatoes or eggs — they were too refined for that. They simply began defaming the signal light by fixating on its looks, calling it names like Wire’s pigeon house, the flashing birdbox and, maybe even, the privy on high.

That technique ignored the fact in order to register the indignation: the fact that this traffic signal did the job it was supposed to do. That it protected their persons and their property from harm at the most dangerous intersection in town. Instead, they obsessed over the way it looked, and kept finding ways to defame the privy on high until they simply wore themselves out. Had it not been for the officer in uniform, at the busiest intersection in town, they might have reverted to seizing the road the way they had done back in 1895. But Wire’s privy on high remained.

A few visitors from out of town were impressed with the traffic signal and adopted Wire’s design, building traffic lights in cities like Cleveland and Detroit. Wire did not give up; he made his next light using a locomotive smokestack to house the red and green bulbs. And the city began installing Wire’s better looking signals all over town, so that five years later, Salt Lake had many traffic lights, and became the first in the nation to have all of them connected together.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.


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