Early Electric Traffic Signals

E. 9th and Euclid

Cleveland in the early 1900s was an exciting, thriving, growing and potentially dangerous place. The streets were full of pedestrians, horses, wagons, streetcars and automobiles, which caused traffic jams and many accidents. Electric Traffic Signals first appeared on Cleveland’s street in 1914, when the American Traffic Signal Company installed one on the corner of E. 105th Street and Euclid Avenue. Designed by James Hoge, it had just two colors, red and green, with the words “stop” and “move.” Safety Director Alfred Benesch tested the new signals in August, 1914. The signals were “placed fifteen feet from the ground on the end of crossarms on poles at the four corners of the intersection of these streets are lights which flash red or green. As the pedestrian or vehicle approaches the crossing, the flashing of the red light is the signal to stop, the green signal is to proceed. Bells on each pole ring when the traffic is to proceed: two long rings for Euclid Ave traffic and one long ring for E. 105th St traffic. A traffic policeman is stationed in a booth at the northwest corner who directs the traffic. In the booth is a telephone and fire alarm apparatus.”

Plain Dealer, 8/6/1914

Many more attempts at designing a functional traffic signal followed. In 1916, Clevelanders John Tomko, CW Oppenlander and SW Oppenlander invented an “electric semaphore” for “minimizing traffic hazards.” The device could be electronically controlled, and had four arms for daytime use, twelve lights for nighttime use and a bell ringing system. Another early version had the traffic signal mounted on a tower and installed in the center of the intersection. A patrolman sat inside the tower, controlling the switches.  Unfortunately, the towers were frequently struck by vehicles.


Plain Dealer, 11/26/1916
Traffic signal tower
Traffic signal tower

Plain Dealer, 1/20/1924

Garrett Morgan was a very successful entrepreneur and inventor and happened to witness a very bad automobile accident at an intersection. The traffic light had already been invented but they were two-way signals. Stop and Go. He recognized that drivers had no advance warning when the Stop signal would be activated. Morgan devised a T-shaped traffic signal that had a third, “caution” signal. When this signal was on, traffic in all directions stopped and intersections would clear. It would also allow pedestrians to cross before traffic started moving again. This third position halted all traffic and was an early version of today’s yellow light.


Innovations and suggestions for change continued throughout the decades, as did appreciations for more old fashioned traffic signals. But soon, Cleveland used automatic, 4-way, 3-light traffic signals at most intersections.

1/22/1928 Plain Dealer
1/7/1929 Plain Dealer
4/8/1926 Plain Dealer

The signal on display in the Museum was modified in the 1930s for use as a training aide by the Cleveland Police Department Accident Prevention Bureau and later by the Public Relations Unit. They used the signal to demonstrate the operation of the light to community groups, school children and public service organizations.


Changing a light bulb at Chester and E. 30th
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