The Beginning of New York City’s Traffic Lights
This ornate traffic light at 34th Street, was one of seven put up in New York City on the heavily traveled Fifth Avenue in 1922.
The city had experimented with traffic signals in 1917 when a device invented by an engineer, Foster Milliken, was installed at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. The device was a revolving flashlight that would flash signals as red to stop and green for go. This may sound ridiculous now, but in the early days of traffic signals there was no standard for color relating to traffic. A letter written by Harry P. Robbins to The New York Times in 1924 commented that:
“Thousands of people who travel in the subways or on the suburban railroads know that green means go, orange means caution and red means stop. Notwithstanding this fact, our signal system provides an orange signal for go, a green signal really for stop, for it is only flashed in the direction of the traffic which is moving and not in the direction of the traffic that is moving in right angles, and a red signal which may mean stop, but is actually taken as a ‘getaway’ signal.
Further, we are not consistent at that. A driver proceeding north on Fifth Avenue has a green signal flashed against him at Forty-second Street to indicate he is to stop and let the crosstown traffic move. At Sixty-fifth Street a green signal flashed in the face of that same driver, means that he shall continue northward.”
Red however, was considered a color that generally warned someone of danger. It was noted by A.H. Rudd of the American Railway Association in 1922 at a meeting of engineers in New York City, that red was wrongly used as the exit light in theatres. “Such exits are not places of danger, but openings for safety in case of emergency and some other color would be more appropriate,” he pointed out. It was suggested by many at the meeting that yellow be the color of tail lights on automobiles.
Dr. John A. Harriss, Special Deputy Police Commissioner, in charge of traffic, had originally introduced traffic towers along Fifth Avenue on March 4, 1920. Harriss paid for the traffic towers’ construction and maintenance out of his own pocket. These first traffic towers were sheds, housed twelve feet off the ground in the center of the intersections, manned by a traffic officer who controlled hand-operated green, yellow and red signals. The other traffic officers stationed along Fifth Avenue would take their cues from these signals in regards to the flow of traffic.
On May 16, 1921 the New York City Board of Estimate approved five new traffic towers to replace these original towers along Fifth Avenue at 34th, 38th, 42nd, 50th and 57th Streets. Two more towers were eventually added to the plan and placed at 14th and 26th Streets, making a total of seven towers running up and down Fifth Avenue. The towers would be a gift from The Fifth Avenue Association, but would then be maintained by the city. They were designed by Joseph H. Freedlander and cast by John A. Polachek Bronze and Iron Co. of Long Island City. Each tower was about 24 feet tall, weighed five tons and was built of solid cast bronze on a heavy steel frame.
The towers had electronically synchronized clocks on their north and south faces and 350 pound bronze bells which would toll the hours
The first new tower was put into service at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street on December 14, 1922 at 2 pm amid much fanfare. The rest of the towers were opened in the following days.
On April 27, 1925 the new city law went into effect, and amber or yellow lights were eliminated to signal that northbound and southbound traffic had the right to proceed. From that day on, red would forever mean “stop” and only green would indicate “go.”