On this day in history : 10th December 1868 – The world’s first traffic lights come into service outside of the Palace of Westminster, London…. They were not quite like those that we are used to today….

Image credit : Leonard Bentley via Flickr

The lights were placed at a busy and notoriously dangerous junction at the north-east corner of Parliament Square…. A traffic policeman had recently been killed – and two Members of Parliament had been badly injured….

Installation had been completed the previous day and there were high hopes that the new lights would alleviate the traffic problems…. They had been designed by railway engineer J.P.Knight from Nottingham, who had adapted his design for a railway signal…. The 22ft high contraption had three semaphore arms on a pillar, that had to be operated by a police constable using a lever at the base…. The arms would extend horizontally to tell drivers to stop; arms lowered to 45 degrees meant proceed with caution…. At night gas lamps on the arms were lit – red for stop, green for proceed with caution….

John Peake Knight – Public domain

Initially it was a partial success – but there were those who were sceptical…. Punch Magazine described it as a ‘Scary Apparition, beaming through the fog’…. Many drivers found the semaphore arms too confusing….

Image : Punch, March 20th 1869

Then on the 2nd of January 1869 leaking gas from one of the supply cables under the pavement exploded – and the contraption blew up, seriously injuring the policeman who was operating it at the time…. The lights were repaired and were used for a few more months – but they kept on going wrong and so were removed by the end of the year…. Electric lights were eventually installed in 1926 with the first at Piccadilly, London….

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