The Disastrous Debut of the World’s First Traffic Lights: London 1868

In the 1860s, the traffic on British roads, particularly in cities, and specifically in London, experienced a massive surge. The growing population and businesses necessitated more efficient means of transportation within the city, leading to the opening of the underground in the same decade. Concurrently, traders sought effective ways to transport goods from shops or warehouses to the nearest train station.

By the mid-1860s, trains began to outpace waterways as the primary method of transporting goods across the country. As local shipping trades dwindled in London, trains took over, and traders had to transport their goods by road. This resulted in increased congestion on London’s streets.

Moreover, personal vehicle ownership surged among the upper classes, who purchased or rented carriages. The rise in population and tourism, facilitated by the ease of traveling to the capital by train instead of days on horseback, led to an uptick in cabs and public carriages, especially outside train stations, catering to newly arrived tourists.

Faced with this vehicular chaos, an ingenious device was devised to ensure the safe passage of traffic in the metropolis. On December 9, 1868, Londoners traversing the junction of Great George Street and Bridge Street were greeted with the sight of the country’s first traffic lights.

Who invented the Traffic Light?

The lights were the brainchild of John Peake Knight, superintendent of the South-Eastern Railway. Knight had presented evidence before a House of Commons committee advocating for the safety benefits of the traffic light system, and the committee endorsed the introduction of the new signals.

Knight was entrusted with creating the traffic lights, and the initial design featured a pillar with semaphore arms. When the arms were perpendicular to the pillar, traffic was to stop, and when at a 45-degree angle, traffic was to ‘proceed with caution.’ The signals were simple, intended to replace the gestures of a traffic policeman.

To ensure visibility at night, red and green lights were added to the device, manufactured by railway signal makers Saxby and Farmer. They produced an elegant iron pillar, standing 24 feet tall and weighing five tonnes, painted green and ‘accented with gilding.’

Initially, the new traffic signal was successful, but three weeks after installation, on January 2, 1869, disaster struck when a leaking gas valve caused the signal to explode. The police officer operating the signal suffered severe burns to the face. The traffic lights were deemed a safety hazard and promptly removed.

London’s traffic continued without traffic lights until 1929, sixty years after John Peake Knight’s first set was erected.

As for Knight himself, he continued his railway career, serving as manager of the Brighton Railway Company until his death at the age of 58 on July 23, 1886. He is buried in Brompton Cemetery.

A blue plaque commemorating Knight as the inventor of the world’s first traffic lights can be seen in London at 12 Bridge Street.

Source: The Victorianist