Early Traffic Signals

Chicago’s first traffic lights were installed along Michigan Avenue in 1923. By the middle of the next decade the city had settled on a standard style of signal. I don’t know if they could be called art deco, art nouveau, or what. All I do know was that they were classy.

Traffic Signal (old)

For a kid growing up in the 1950s, there was a bonus. You could put your ear next to the box and hear a clicking sound each time one of the lights changed. A simple pleasure—but then, we didn’t have video games.

When better traffic signals were developed, these relics had to go. As it should, public safety trumped aesthetics. The last city intersection I recall having a complete set of the older signals was 57th-Woodlawn, around 1976.



9 Responses to “Early Traffic Signals”

  1. 1 SWSIDEFAN March 31, 2014 at 10:50 am

    John – not that long ago, when stopped at a light late at night when it was very quiet, I could hear the clicking of even modern day signals as they moved through their sequence in addition to the noticeable change in hum as the power shifted between the lights. Not sure if this is still the case with the new LED lights (the ones that did not melt the snow and sleet from their lenses this winter), but in any case, I knew if I could hear the sounds of the traffic signals, I was out way too late!

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt March 31, 2014 at 3:09 pm

      I didn’t realize the more modern (1970s-vintage) signals were so noisy. I just remembered what we used to do with the ancient ones when we were kids.

  2. 3 Ralph May 1, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    John, do you recall were that photo was taken? I am thinking Montrose and Central.

    I also remember the area around Pratt and Ashland, around 1982, hearing the noise from the traffic signals. I read somewhere that was one of the last areas with those types of signals.

  3. 4 J.R. Schmidt May 1, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    Good catch. This is the NE corner of Montrose and Central.

  4. 5 Chris June 26, 2014 at 1:02 am

    That’s a nice old signal there. The clunking you hear is the older electromechanical controllers in those boxes on the sides of the road. Although a few still remain across the U.S., most have been replaced by solid state electronics. I’ve been interested in traffic lights since I was a kid and would love to post this photo on a Facebook page I share with other enthusiasts. Happy to give credit, so let me know who gets it. Thanks for sharing!

  5. 7 Tom May 25, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    I just stumbled on your site, to my surprise I’m not the only traffic light “geek” around, this is good news! 😉 I can name you a whole bunch of “clunkers” still in use today(5/2015). “Clunkers” is my name for electro-mechanical controllers, which are still in use in many parts of the city, especially on the south and southwest sides.

    Many of the signals have been changed to LED 12 inch from standard 8 inch units. Many of these still have the old controllers, wiring and hardware that were installed many years ago.

    If you would like I can either post intersections here or email them to you.

    The last of the signals you posted above was still in use at Halsted and Waveland by the police station. Only one of the four side poll signals was still the style pictured above. It was on the NE corner across from the station where a Checkers drive thru was located. This signal was still in use until the late 90’s when it was hit by a car and replaced by a standard silver pole and 8 inch green cased signal. The entire intersection was redone sometime in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, and the whole signal replaced with a solid state controller.

    Thanks for the pic, this made my day!


  6. 8 Tom May 25, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    I forgot to add that the signal at Montrose and Central is retro-fitted with LED’s, the controller is still electro-mechanical(at least it was as of last year, 2014).

    The controller is on the corner where the gas station is located. It looks to be one of the last batch of electro-mechanical signals installed by Chicago in the mid to late 70’s.

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