Old New York in Photos #19 – First Traffic Light Signals

First Traffic Light Signals –  Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, 1922

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.”

11 thoughts on “Old New York in Photos #19 – First Traffic Light Signals

  1. Pingback: 1920s - Gang Roundup - November 2020

  2. Bill Harmon

    I have an unsigned oil on wood panel painting of 42nd street and Park Ave circa 1922 / 1929. Included in the painting is a 24 foot high traffic signal that was installed in the 1920’s. The painting is very well executed and is definitely painted in the 1920’s. I bought it in an upstate NY auction in 2016. In my research on the internet I came across a photograph of the exact scene so I assume the painting was done from that photo. If this should “ring a bell” with you I would love any feedback you could give me. Thanks kindly

  3. Steven Gembara

    Interesting article. I happen to preserve primarily vintage New York City signals and street signs as a hobby, and I have been doing for nearly 7 years.

    I went as far as to publish a book about New York City’s traffic control history, which is based upon a couple of years of personal research. The short book mainly revolves around the classic two-color (red and green) stoplight in the city of New York, and it intertwines with the evolution of traffic control in the city. I discuss the history behind these traffic towers.

    My book is called “New York City’s red and green lights: a brief look back in time.” I released it to the public last summer, and it is currently available for sale on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com, and my publisher’s website, FastPencil.com.

    If you’d like to review the book and discuss on here, I would appreciate it. I could provide you an online “editor copy” of the book.


    Steven Gembara

  4. Jasmine Orenstein

    An amazing article!! My husband’s family (on his father’s side) were corporate owners of one of the early traffic signal maintenance companies in New York City. And I feel that this history truly does pertain to my family and I.

  5. Djuna Tree

    Thank you for your interesting and thorough article! I am in fact researching the state of traffic lights in the New York of 1922 right now. I wonder if you have a reference (or perhaps a date) for the 1924 letter to the New York Times you mention?

      1. Djuna Tree

        I cannot imagine how meticulous your record keeping must be, given I asked four years after publication! Thank you very much.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.