The 20-foot monstrosity rose up in the middle of the road, between Bridge Street and Great George Street in London, two arms stretching up during the day, a gas lamp glowing like a gaping maw at night.
Built by engineers, designed by a railway manager, and approved by Parliament, the strange contraption had a purpose as serious as its appearance was strange: to protect pedestrians from carriage traffic and keep the streets outside the House of Parliament from filling with congestion.
On December 9, 1868, London became the first city to have a traffic light.
The structure would hardly be recognizable today. Compared to the modern lights seen at every corner, this lamp was an architectural spectacle.
“Gothic paneling at the base supported a hollow cast-iron pillar, painted green and relieved with gilding, which then evolved into a thick metal coil, encompassed at the top by acanthus leaves which appeared to be growing out of an octagonal box containing the lamps, itself finished off by a pineapple finial,” writes James Winter in London’s Teeming Streets, 1830-1914.
Despite its gaudy design, the lamp was a marvel. Newspapers crowed its success.
Engineers predicted the arrival of these technological wonders on every street, with an accompanying police officer to operate them. But within a month all excitement had abated; the design proved to have a fatal flaw.* * *London of the 19th century was a dangerous place for commuters.
The medieval city had been constructed along routes following the Thames River, and the Industrial Revolution brought more workers and horse carts than had ever before plied the narrow roads.
When a hackney coach broke down and caused a traffic jam in the major thoroughfare known as the Strand in 1803, two men and a woman were trapped between coal wagons and crushed to death.
In 1811, London Bridge hosted 90,000 pedestrians, 5,500 vehicles and 764 horse riders in a single day.
And the flood of people only continued to grow.
By 1850, about 27,000 commuters entered the city daily from outside towns, and they represented only a tenth of the total number of workers, most of whom came by foot or omnibus (a large wagon pulled by horses).