I believe it was the great philosopher Paul Westerberg who once said, “Red light, red light, run it.”

It was on this day in 1913 that a man called James Hoge applied for a patent that would help shape the course of the country.

Officially known as a “municipal traffic control system,” it was a key stop on the road toward the stoplights we have today.

But first we need to back up to 19th Century London, where horse-drawn carriages were clonking into each other on busy streets.

Drivers couldn’t or wouldn’t obey the traffic commands from constables.

A rail engineer, J.P. Knight, suggested a system of gas-powered lights based on the railroads, which for decades had used red as a signal to stop, and green for go.

It was a big hit – for a month, until it blew up.

But as the car became popular, other inventors developed signals based on the same principle, that vehicles had to take turns to cross intersecting roads.

Hoge’s was an electric system that could be operated remotely instead of inside the intersection.

Interestingly, it didn’t use red and green lights; its signals were signs saying “STOP” and “MOVE.”

It could also be temporarily shut down if an emergency vehicle needed to get through.

Later inventors would bring back the red and green lights, and a traffic officer in Detroit, William Potts, added yellow as a warning signal between the red and green.

And the great Black inventor Garrett Morgan patented an affordable three-position traffic light, which he later sold to General Electric.

The traffic lights quickly spread across the country and vastly improved safety on the roads.

But they also created a problem of a different kind: towns that didn’t have a light, or only had one, didn’t have the same status as the places that had lots of them.

Nobody liked being stuck in traffic, but nobody wanted to be stuck somewhere that didn’t have any, either.


Red on top, yellow in the middle, green on the bottom. That’s how most stoplights are set up.

But in Syracuse, New York, the stoplight on Tipperary Hill is in reverse.

The story goes that Irish residents there didn’t like having the red color they associated with the British on top of their beloved green.

So people threw rocks to break the red lights until the town came up with a solution: the first, and maybe only, upside-down traffic light, with Irish green on top.

A Brief History of the Stoplight (Smithsonian)

There’s No Other Traffic Light In America Like This One In New York (Only In Your State)

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Stoplight photo by Taber Andrew Bain via Flickr/Creative Commons