The Yellow Traffic Light – You Can Thank a Michigan Man for This Ingenious Invention
A Detroit police officer is the man behind the invention that makes you step on the gas more often than you should. We're talking about the yellow traffic light.
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William Potts is probably rolling over in his grave today, knowing how many people race through those signals, or worse, keep going once the yellow light has given way to red.
A Young Detroit Cop Had an Idea
Potts was born in Bad Axe, Michigan, and is believed to have become a police officer by 1900 at the young age of 17. About 10 years later, Potts was named the 'Superintendent, signal person police' officer for the city of Detroit.
Traffic lights (in their early form) had been around for decades, the first being installed at Parliament Square in London in 1868. Two pivoting signs designating 'Stop' and 'Go' were mounted on movable arms that were illuminated by a gas-lit semaphore. (That first one, however, was short-lived as it exploded withing two months, killing the officer that was running it.)
The first electric signal was switched on in 1914 at the corner of Euclid Ave. and 105th St. in Cleveland, Ohio.
But Something Was Missing
Potts saw the need to caution drivers that the light was about to change from green to red. Using modified railway signal equipment, Potts devised a three-light traffic signal, designating the yellow light as a warning light that indicated the light was about to turn red.
According to Road Traffic Signs, the first three-light traffic signal was installed at the corner of Woodward Ave. and Michigan Ave. in 1920. And the rest is history.