When we are driving in our Malaysian road, we will encounter traffic conjunction or traffic jamaccident, irresponsible drivers, road bully, car breakdown, public vehicle breakdown, traffic police, UFO, paranormal activities and much more. They are another thing that we will encounter whether we like it or not and that is the 3 colors traffic light. We all had been taught in the driving school on what the 3 colors of the traffic light and the action that needed to be done with as Red is too stop, Yellow is too standby and Green where we can drive the car and the situation will repeat again in any situation. Although we do not like the traffic light if it takes too long, when the light had broken down we will have a hard time to drive on that particular road. Like all the innovation related to the car, the traffic light to has a long history.

The first traffic light is a far cry from the current computerized and centralized traffic light as it was a non-electrical and gas filled traffic lights. It was installed outside the House of Parliament in London in 9th December 1868. The traffic light was fixed as to control the heavy traffic in the Bridge Street, George Street and in the Parliament Street. The man who had invented this traffic light is J.P Knight of Nottingham who gets his idea from his own railway signaling system. The gas filled traffic light had been successful in controlling the traffic on the particular street which it had intended for but unfortunately, it was short-lived as due to the nature of the design that uses a gas, a leak had caused the traffic to explode injuring and killing the policemen who had operated it.

Although it was disastrous but the idea was implemented again using a semaphore system. The semaphore system using an arm where it will extend horizontally meaning to “Stop” and lower to 45 degree which means “Caution”. It was better and reliable than the gas filled traffic lights. In the United States, in the first decade of the 20th century each state has their own design of traffic lights where some states implement the word “Stop” and “Go” in a white back and the lights were designed using a red and green lens, and for the benefits of the night travellers it was illuminated with a kerosene lamps.

Semaphore traffic light

For the search of continuous improvement for the traffic lights, in 1922 in New York, an automatics timer had been introduced for the traffic lights to gain a better control. The results it had been successful in controlling the traffic and at some time reduces the human cost of the traffic officers in the city. One year later in November 20th, 1923, an African American named as Garett Morgan had filed a patent for the traffic signal and it had been approved. Garett Morgan and Detroit Police Officer William Pots design of 3 colors for the traffic light had become the precursor for the current traffic lights.

The traffic light at first had been widespread to the world where Melbourne become the first city in Australia to install the traffic light and meanwhile the Egmore Junction in Chennai had become the first city in South India that had the traffic light system. The current traffic light which had become computerized was an invention in the 1950’s due to the rise of the computer system and this had led to more efficient traffic signal change and the first city to had installed this computerized traffic light is in Toronto, Canada in 1967. And in 1990,s come another innovation the countdown timer for the traffic where now the pedestrian and the driver can estimate the time to move from the traffic.

Egmore Street, the first street in South India to had the traffic light system. Image credit from Alamy stock photo.

Although we had been taught in the school and in the driving school the color red for “Stop”, yellow for “Standby” and green for “Move”, they are several variations in the other countries. In our country Malaysia, we are using the standard red, yellow and green system. In the United States, the flashing red lights are equivalent to the stop sign.

In New Zealand meanwhile, aired red/red traffic lights are often installed outside Fire and Ambulance Stations on major roads, which when activated by the station, flash alternatively (so that at any time one red light is always showing), the purpose being to cause to traffic to stop for a set amount of time to allow emergency vehicles to exit their station safely.

They are also some unusual traffic light design around the world. We know that the standard traffic light is a tall post with the 3-rounded color signal but in Canada in the provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, they are using use horizontal traffic lights with red to the left and green on the right. These signals also use specific shapes for each color, which aids colour-blind people in distinguishing signal aspects where green – an ordinary “ball” shape, yellow – a diamond shape, and red – a square (somewhat larger than the ball shape).

The traffic light although we hated some time but it is one of the best method designed to control the traffic especially in the notoriously busy traffic without consuming much energy from the human hence reducing the human cost. The invention that had started from a gas filled traffic to the disastrous explosion had been constantly innovated to have a better quality and efficient traffic control. With some of the countries deploy different type of variation for their traffic signal, different type of design and also different purpose, they are no compulsory rules for the traffic light as each country in the world may design their own style of traffic light but the end results that the traffic light should be able to control the traffic in the particular street without using the human energy frequently and in the end it will save the human cost for concerned traffic department in each country.

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