26 Jun

Oh, my Darley. Oh, my Darley!

3-bulb W. S. Darley traffic light
3-bulb W. S. Darley traffic light

3-bulb W. S. Darley traffic light

My latest traffic light acquisition is a four-way three-bulb W.S. Darley Simplex C-811 from Colorado. I thought I was almost done with collecting 4-way signals (Who am I kidding?), and my wife wishes I was done with them too, but the uniqueness and history of the Darley Simplex signals intrigued me and I couldn’t resist.

Since the 1950s, the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) has stated that all vertically mounted traffic signals music have indications of red on top, yellow (or amber) in the middle, and green on the bottom. This is a standard to make sure there’s no confusion when approaching intersections, especially for the color blind. The only exception is one intersection in Syracuse, New York. Up until this time, it was more or less the wild west of traffic light design and signal manufacturers came up with a few different designs. W.S. Darley manufactured signals from about the 1930s into about the 1950s, and in the earlier years, without those regulations on how traffic lights had to be built, an subtle but iconic traffic light was inadvertently designed.

Fixed-4-way traffic signals were built with a bulb for each indication and direction of red, yellow, and green, which meant that it had 12 sockets, wiring to 12 sockets, and 12 light bulbs. Darley came up with a design that was much simpler and much less expensive to build. Each section – top, middle, and bottom – had one bulb to illuminate all four directions. But if the top section was lit to give main street a red light, that same top section also had to have green lit for the cross street. This meant that the green had to be in the top section as well as the red. So for Main Street, you had red on top and green on the bottom but the cross street had green on top and red on the bottom. The reverse was true for the bottom section. Ingenious! Well, not completely, as this was originally done by William Potts’ and his 4-way signal, considered the precursor to 4-way traffic lights as we know them today. Many of these even came with its own built-in controller. Talk about plug-n-play!

Although this was a very simple and economic design, it had its flaws. The biggest was if a bulb burned out, you now had four directions that were dark. Remember, that one bulb illuminated all four ways. And since it had a on-board timer, there was no way to synchronize it with other signals in the area. Generally this was a low-cost signal that was designed for small towns that probably only had the one signal, so that was rarely an issue. W.S. Darley also built traffic lights that were proper 4-way signals for those areas that required compliance, which meant that after the standardization, 3-bulb Darley signals went the way of the Dodo bird.

4-way traffic light cluster

4-way traffic light cluster

Because it’s a fixed-4-way is not to say why these signals are unique among other fixed-4-ways. Despite Darley ceasing production in the 1950s, many fixed 4-way signals were no longer being manufactured after the 1960s because it was much more economic to build and install clusters of single-face signals. These clusters also had an advantage of being able to be angled left or right in off-axis intersections where a fixed 4-way could really only point in 90-degrees in each direction. What makes this signal unique is the 3-bulb design. It came at a time where simplicity reigned before standards. It was a cost-savings option that was offered to municipalities that didn’t need complication. They wanted something that did its job and worked well. As a testament to the W. S. Darley, the 60-year-old electromechanical controller in mine still works.

02 Aug

How to choose the right light bulbs for your traffic light.

Older 116 watt traffic signal bulb

Which light bulbs do I need for my traffic light?

I received an email from George, a visitor to MyTrafficLights.com, looking for information on what kind of light bulbs are needed for the traffic signal he recently picked up. In the real world these days, modern traffic signals are now assembled with LED modules that contain an array of LEDs which will gradually fail over time, usually many, many years, rather than all at once like a regular light bulb. LEDs also use much less electricity, saving towns on their electric bills over time, especially if there are hundreds of signals in a jurisdiction.

But that doesn’t help George. I mean, he could get an LED insert to retrofit his signal. That would involve sourcing an LED insert from ebay or a local contractor, disconnecting and removing the socket, reflector, and lens from the head, then wiring up the new LED after putting it into place. Very cool! But for now, we just want the simple fix: a new bulb.

For a detailed and historical look at the various bulbs that were used in signals over the years, I suggest a look at a page on Willis Lamm’s site where he lists and displays many of the bulbs used in signals throughout history.

Seeing the Light

Older 116 watt traffic signal bulb

Older 116 watt traffic signal bulb

The simple truth is traffic lights run on 120 volts and all used medium base light bulbs, so you could use just about any regular, incandescent, household bulb you have laying around. I generally use 25 or 40 watt bulbs for indoor displays and up to 60 watts for outdoor displays. Since 8-inch signals usually used 69 watt bulbs and up to 165 watt bulbs for 12-inch-lens signals, there’s really no need to go brighter, especially if your signal and lenses are plastic.

I don’t recommend compact fluorescent bulbs for a couple of reasons.

  • One, they are usually REALLY slow to come up to full intensity and likely won’t achieve full brightness in the short time they’re lit.
  • They’re not designed for short-duration use like the minute or so that a signal would keep one lit while going through its sequence. They’ll die quickly.
  • The design of the bulbs don’t allow for even distribution of light against the reflector, causing shadows and allowing you to easily see the outline of the bulb through the lens.
  • They contain mercury, so if one breaks, that’s quite unhealthy for you and the environment.

If energy savings is on your mind, LED bulbs will work well, but don’t quite offer the original look of a clear bulb. The designs of many of these bulbs also suffer from uneven light distribution towards the base of the bulb, casting shadows on the reflector. And be sure to find a bulb that has a color temperature of 3200K or less. With daylight-balanced bulbs, the colors of the lenses will be off, since the glass colors were originally designed with the warmer color temperature of the incandescent bulbs in mind.

New 25-watt bulb

New 25 watt bulb

This is why I still like to use standard, clear, medium base, incandescent bulbs. They work perfectly well. You may find them as an “appliance bulb”, which are good too. These may offer more durability than just a standard bulb if you move your signal around a lot.

05 Jul

A traffic light restoration is better late than never.

Horni fixed 4-way from late 1920s/early 1930s

In May of 2015, I bought a traffic light from a gentleman (Ed) at his garage sale. (Read my previous post about that) It wasn’t much to look at. The light was nothing but a sand blasted shell with a cardboard box of loose lenses. He said that if I was going to restore it, he’d like to see it once it was done.

Restoration began when I scrubbed the oxidation off of the aluminum body. I new it would be difficult or impossible to remove much of the hardware without damage, so I opted to just tape them off with painter’s tape. I sprayed it with an aluminum primer, then gave it a nice coat of Hunt Club Green paint. Because the reflector doors that held the lenses in place had been broken off at some point, I sourced LED inserts that had the look of old lenses. I then had a custom IC controller built to be able to cycle the signal through one of 16 different sequences. Back in 1929, there were no standards as to how traffic lights functioned, so I researched as many sequences as I could find to include in the programming. It’s really cool to see it working.

But there is a back story to all of this. Ed wasn’t simply interested in seeing what it would look like when it was done.

Ed’s father retired from being a police officer in 1984 and asked the Union County road department if he could have the old signal that had been sitting in the county garage for many years. Shortly after that, he had it sand blasted with plans of giving it some sort of restoration and hanging it in the back of his riverfront home in Florida. He never got around to doing anything further with it, as life often gets in the way, and eventually gave it to Ed. Ed had plans of restoring it for his father, but again, life got in the way and little more than scraping off some of the oxidation had been done to it.

A few years later, his father passed away and, thus, the unfinished signal sat in a shed for roughly the next 25 years.

A bit over a year later on a warm day in July, I was happy to show Ed what I was able to do with the signal.

Cupping his hand over his mouth, his eyes wide, and murmuring a low-key, “Wow”, he was visibly moved upon seeing the signal. We talked for about a half an hour, telling me about him and his father, and thanked me for remembering to show him. I took a couple of photos of him next to the light so he could print one up and put it next to another photo of his dad. He wished that his dad could see what had become of this odd “retirement gift”, and maybe the photo would help facilitate that in some spiritual way.

I hope he likes what I did to it.

The Horni the weekend I bought it.

The Horni the weekend I bought it.

Ed and the signal I bought from him

Ed next to the signal I bought from him in very different shape.

03 Dec

Why is there a clear light in the traffic signal?

Merissa_signalI love it when people contact me with questions about traffic lights after stumbling into my website. I love it even more when I can answer their questions, and Merissa’s was a gem.

Like any red-blooded, level-headed American, she bought a traffic light. Odd thing about it was that one of the sections had, what appeared to be, a clear light, and she wanted to know why. The person she bought it from thought that it may be from a railroad.

Sorry, my dear Watson, but that “clear” light will actually light up green. Many of the LED manufacturers offer tinted and clear options. Generally, the only light that will always be tinted is the red, although I do have a signal with a clear red.

A few years ago, traffic lights began being assembled with LED inserts rather than a single light bulb in front of a reflector and behind a glass or plastic lens. These newer inserts contain an array of small, colored LEDs, so if some of them fail, you still have a lit indication, rather than a light bulb which can be a single point of failure. LEDs also use less electricity and can be brighter. Some place a clear or diffused cover in front of the LEDs and still have it light up the color of the LEDs, like Merissa’s.

"Sun Phantom" effect of a traffic light

“Sun Phantom” effect of a traffic light, iStock Photo

As for the clear-looking inserts go, these have colored LEDs that only show their true colors when lit. This implementation is designed to eliminate “sun phantoming”, a situation where the sun can hit the signal and make it appear that all lights are lit. The non-tinted sections don’t have a color to reflect, thereby showing no indication when sunlight hits it directly.

Seeing all indications lit increases chances for an accident at an intersection due to a confused driver. If you do find yourself in a situation where you can’t tell what indication is actually lit, whether they all look lit or they all look dark, treat the intersection like it’s a 4-way stop.

That explains her “clear” lens. I also pointed out that the bottom section likely contains a bi-modal arrow, a nice little bonus that’s pretty cool itself. But I’ll save that for another post.

Enjoy your traffic light, Merissa! I’d love to see it hanging in your house!

23 Sep

Idiot kid and a traffic light bank

Ceramic Traffic Light Bank

The old saying, “Hindsight is 20/20” has meaning here. Today I look back and think, “Wow, I was an idiot when I was a kid.” Fortunately for me, my parents realized that I’d make stupid decisions.

I was about 10 years old and my family was spending time at the Jersey shore like we did every year. After spending the day playing in the sand and jumping through the waves, we’d walk into town after dinner and check out the local stores, maybe looking for a t-shirt, new toy, or towel.

Ceramic Traffic Light Bank

While rummaging through one such five-and-dime, my parents came across a great little ceramic bank of a traffic light with a police officer holding his hand out giving a stop indication. In the meantime, I had found a sweet squirt gun that I thought was absolutely cool. Was it special? No. It was like any other crappy, cheap squirt gun that you’d find in any beach town store.

While I clutched the squirt gun in my hands, my parents presented me with the bank and a decision: I could take the squirt gun or the bank. After a brief moment of indecision I made up my mind. What would be cooler than… a blue squirt gun? Ten-year-old-me thought it was a good decision. You can see how clear that hindsight is now, especially since that squirt gut didn’t last more than a day in the salt water of the Jersey shore.

I don’t think I thought about that bank after that… At least until my parents surprised me with it as an Easter gift the following year. At that time, I doubt they though that my fascination with traffic lights would last as long as it has. I’m lucky to have parents that have the foresight to make sure that my dumb decision wasn’t something I’d later regret.

04 Sep

Bob’s Mom.

1960s glow-in-the-dark chain pull

Part of the idea behind my blog is to provide some history behind some of the signals in my collection. This is one of them that I’ve had for many years that has a great story behind it.

I showed my interest in traffic lights at an early age. I think my parents first saw my fascination in this street furniture when I began drawing them everywhere. (If you haven’t already read my brief bio on the Me and MTL page, it’s mildly entertaining.) Like most kids, I had a toy that I cherished over everything else and would likely enter severe depression if it was ever taken away. For me, that was my ceiling fan/light chain pull.

pullchain.jpgFound in many homes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this little, glow-in-the-dark piece of molded, hard plastic didn’t get a second look, other than when it smacked you in the head after yanking on it to turn the pantry light on. But to me, it was a miniature version of something I was fascinated with. The fact that this resembled a single light with just red and green on all four sides, when all I ever saw was red, yellow, and green signals, meant that this one was really special. Plus the fact that I could easily and comfortably wrap my little hand around it gave me that “it’s mine” feeling.

But with any toy that you constantly play with, eventually it started to fall apart. The two halves of the molded body were starting to separate and the beaded “lights” began to dislodge from their respective spots. I was broken-hearted but determined to hold onto it.

At some point in 1978 (pretty sure), I got off the school bus after school one day in first grade at my friend Bob’s house. In those days, we called it “getting off the bus with so-and-so after school to go play” – not a “play date”. We began doing things that he and I normally did with: beat each other with plastic Star Wars light sabers, check out the fox they were nursing back to health, playing with the cats, or hurling those sharp burr seeds at each other from make-shift forts.

Taking a break, we made our way through the kitchen where Bob’s mom was doing mom stuff. She saw my chain pull and, upon seeing the brutal condition it was in, offered their pull to me, which was hanging in their closet. I was hesitant in taking it. I felt bad that I would be giving her my dilapidated, sorry-assed stop light and I’d be receiving one in great condition. I thought about saying no, but a little bit of selfishness accepted the deal. Today, I realize that “the Mom” in her just wanted to see that I had a “toy” that would continue to make me happy. I’m glad I took her up on the deal. Losing her good chain pull didn’t make a difference to her, but it meant the world to me.

About nine years ago, I saw Bob and his parents at a friend’s wedding. She remembered me as “the boy who liked traffic lights”. I was OK with that. I was able to tell her that I still had the chain pull she gave me almost 30 years prior. I hope she realized what that little gesture meant to me.

Thanks, Mrs. W.

30 Aug

History of New York’s red-green traffic lights

In the tight-knit world of signal collecting, I’m lucky to be able to chat with many other collectors and industry experts on forums and at meets, and there are a good number of them who really know their stuff.

There are a couple of guys who will forget more than I’ll ever know when it comes to controllers. A few of them can tell you what kind of signal is in a photo, the year it came out, what company bought out that company, the year that company was bought out, and the year that company closed down. And I’ll likely need both hands keep track of the guys who can instantly tell you the brand of a lens by the pattern in the glass, the years they were manufactured and used, and what signals they were used in.

New York City's Red and Green Lights: A Brief Look Back in Time, by Steven Gembara

New York City’s Red and Green Lights: A Brief Look Back in Time, by Steven Gembara

One of those guys can tell you everything you need to know about the history of New York’s red-green traffic lights that adorned the city’s streets.  New Jersey resident Steven Gembara took his knowledge a step further and wrote a book about it, “New York City’s Red & Green Lights – A Brief Look Back in Time”.

According to Steven, “The book contains several years worth of personal research, so I am glad that I was able to put everything down into words.”

Steven grew up in New York City. At a young age, he didn’t quite understand the traffic light, but it intrigued him. Over the years, he began learning more and even collected some of the hardware of New York City traffic and pedestrian control, including the iconic signal pictured on the cover of his book, the fixed-four-way Ruleta.

I’m generally happy with what I have accomplished. It was merely a personal goal.” said Steven. “I naturally don’t expect it to be a best seller, due to the unfamiliarity of the topic.

Personally, I can’t imagine that many vertical markets have a best-seller, but when writing about a subject that includes transportation, New York City, street furniture, and traffic control technology, that opens the door to other groups and potentially more eyeballs.

He also says, “I blindly chose this path, and gathering all the information and putting everything into words has been an exhausting, yet enjoyable experience for me.”

You can find Steven’s book on FastPencil.com. Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. I bought my copy and hope to have Steven sign it at some point. After all, how often can you get a book written about a subject that you’re really interested in, let alone, signed by the author that you’ve known for some time? How cool is that? Go buy! Now!

29 May

They know me.

This goes back to the whole idea of letting others know what kind of hobbies you’re in to. I found out that the son of our pastor is into Pez dispensers. I had one laying around that I really had no desire to hold onto any more so I gave it to him. If I didn’t know he was into those things, it would have been thrown into the recycle bin or garbage.

Well, the same goes for my situation, too. A few weeks ago, a friend and his boys were driving past a garage sale and noticed an old 4-way traffic light for sale. They immediately thought of me because of an event our church had called “Bring Your Other Passion to Church”, which I talked about in a previous post. I had to run out to pick up some lawn-and-leaf bags at the hardware store, so I took a minor detour in the opposite direction towards the sale.

Horni-4wayThe signal, made by Horni in the late 1920s or early 30s, was only the frame with a box of original lenses. It had been purchased by the man’s father with intentions of fixing it up and lighting it with a florescent tube inside. Unfortunately, that never happened and after this guy got it from his father, it sat in his shed for about 20 years.

Now it’s mine. And with a pseudo-promise of getting it painted and working, I’ll send some photos to the gentleman so he can show his family when all is done. My biggest dilemma is to decide whether or not to keep the original Horni/Kopp #27 lenses. My intent is to outfit the signal with newer LED inserts since the original reflector mounts were broken off the insides of the signal doors at some point. Finding replacements is going to be nearly impossible, so rather than jury-rig the lenses in place with third-party reflectors and sockets, I thought I’d give it a modern facelift. We’ll see. I’m still trying to figure out if I should part the lenses out or not.

Either way, I have a great piece of signal history added to my collection. All because someone else knows me and what I collect.

15 Apr

My name is Chris, and I collect traffic lights.

Unless someone else is a collector of something normal, it can be a little difficult to admit that you collect something as odd as traffic lights. Some people look at you like you wear polka dots every day. But I’ve recently learned that admitting that can open some pretty cool possibilities.

In the 1950s, Stadco made a little traffic light that you’d hang int he back of your car. The green would come on when you had your foot on the gas, yellow would illuminate if you were coasting, and red would come on when you hit the brakes. I have one. It’s a neat little piece. But I’m looking to sell it because I recently found one on Craigslist that included the original box and instruction sheet. Very cool. But there’s more to this than just a little traffic light.

Eaglelux Wait-Walk pedestrian signal from the 1940s

Eaglelux Wait-Walk pedestrian signal from the 1940s

The guy who listed it lives about 5 hours north of me, so when I emailed him asking whether or not he’d consider shipping if I paid for shipping costs, I mentioned that I collect traffic lights. I told him that wanted to add this to my collection because it also had the box. I felt like I needed to legitimize myself because you never know what kind of yahoos are trying to scam others out of their belongings so I wanted to add some personality to the email. Well, he was happy to oblige, but also mentioned that since I had an interest in traffic lights, I might be interested in an old pedestrian Wait-Walk signal that he had. After seeing the photos and hearing his asking price, I couldn’t turn it down.

A friend who lives in Boston makes occasional trips to New Jersey and was kind enough to pick up my new booty and meet me on his next trip to the Garden State.  I have a new piece of history in my collection, just because I admitted my odd-ball hobby.

19 Mar

The only traffic light on my site that I don’t own.

My website is an outlet for me to talk about and show off my collection – All of my wearable traffic lights, all of my toys, my real ones, and my decorative signals that only come out once or twice a year. But there’s a key word in all of this: “My”. But aside from the ones on my homepage slider, there is one signal on my site that is not in my collection.

As a signal collector I will notice old, tattered, worn-out, and new signals. Some of them immediately jump out at me. Others take a few passings by. Some are striking and some are subtle. But one kind of fell in the middle. It’s the photo of the 4-way cluster that adorns the top of my site. This cluster is on West Passaic Street in Rochelle Park, New Jersey. You can see it here… https://goo.gl/maps/VaiC7B9Z2Ts

Traffic light cluster on W Passaic Street, Rochelle Park, New Jersey

I don’t know exactly what it is about this signal. I think its weathered paint, incandescent bulbs, and unreproduceable (I think I just made up a new word) patina just struck me as really cool. It shows its age but doesn’t work any differently than it did when it was put up, probably about 30 years ago.

So yea. There’s one signal that isn’t in my collection. But I’d love to add it some day and give it a good home when it retires.