John Peake “J.P.” Knight was born in Nottingham, England around 1828.
He left school at the age of twelve to work in the parcel room of the Derby railway station.
J.P. loved the railroad and over the course of his life accomplished a great deal to improve the quality of railway travel.
He married the love of his life Elizabeth, and the couple would go on to raise 5 sons.
Then in 1866, 1102 people were killed and 1334 injured on roads in London.
J.P. was by now an engineer for the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway Company.
Recognizing the benefit of railway signals, J.P. Knight proposed a signaling system based on these railway semaphore armed signals illuminated at night by red and green gas lamps.
The first railway semaphore signal had been erected by Charles Hutton Gregory on the London and Croydon Railway (later the London Brighton and South Coast Railway) at New Cross, southeast London, about 1842.
London officials liked the idea and commissioned the railway signal engineers of Saxby & Farmer to work with J.P. to construct the traffic signal.
Also, after George Pullman founded the British Pullman Car Company in 1867, J.P. Knight successfully promoted the use of these lounge cars with alarm pulls for the safety and security of ladies.
First traffic signal
J.P. Knight’s final design for the new traffic signal combined three movable semaphore arms with red and green gas lamps for night-time use, mounted on a pillar and operated by a police constable. When the movable arm was extended horizontally, that signaled “stop.” When the movable arm was at a 45-degree angle, that signaled “caution.” Then at night, the red and green gas lights supplemented the arms to signal “stop” (red light) or “caution” (green light) for both horse-drawn conveyances as well as pedestrians.
Then on December 9, 1868, these first traffic signals were installed outside the British Houses of Parliament in London to control the traffic on Bridge Street, Great George Street and Parliament Street.
On December 10, 1868, the police constable was able, for the first time, to turn a lever at the base of the signal and control traffic with the use of a red or green lantern that faced traffic.
However, this was not the type of traffic light we think of today, and although it was said to be successful at controlling traffic, its operational life was brief.
Although it was said to be successful at controlling traffic, its operational life was brief.
The traffic light exploded on January 2, 1869, as a result of a leak in one of the gas lines underneath the pavement, injuring or perhaps even killing the policeman who was operating it.
With doubts about its safety, the concept was abandoned by 1870.
In spite of the failure, J.P. Knight was promoted and eventually became Traffic Manager for the London to Brighton Line.
In 1878, J.P. received the Legion of Honour decoration.
The Legion of Honour, or in full the National Order of the Legion of Honour (French: Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur) is a French order established by Napoleon Bonaparte on 19 May 1802. The Order is the highest decoration in France and is divided into five degrees: Chevalier (Knight), Officier (Officer), Commandeur (Commander), Grand Officier (Grand Officer) and Grand Croix (Grand Cross).
J.P. Knight died in 1886, and as a credit to his traffic signal the Prince of Wales laid a special wreath on his coffin during the funeral.
He is buried in Brompton Cemetery in London.
A memorial plaque to J.P. Knight’s invention can be seen today at 12 Bridge Street, Westminster, the corner building close to where the original traffic lights would have been erected. Minister for Roads and Road Safety, Baroness Hayman, unveiled the plaque on March 4, 1998.
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