29 Aug

My Attica Traffic Light

Attica Traffic Signal
Attica Traffic Signal

My Attica traffic light

I love the internet. The ability to type anything into a Google search and find out all kinds of information from people all over the world is a very powerful thing. I’ve gotten used to being able to do that. So when I acquired a traffic light by the Attica Traffic Signal Company, I was looking forward to finding out all kinds of information about it. I wanted to learn about the history of the company, find out when these signals were made, and see photos of them in others’ collections. So what did I find out?

Almost nothing.

Scranton, PA's Report of Controller from 1920 referencing Attica

Scranton, PA’s 1920 Report of Controller

First, I’ll talk about the company history (or lack thereof). Attica Traffic Signal Company was headquartered at 330 Paxtang Avenue in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I wasn’t able to find any incorporation dates, which doesn’t surprise me since there’s no mention of “incorporated” in the name, but it would have been nice to find them registered as a company somewhere.

Any other references are few and far between. Interestingly, it appears that they were around as far back as 1920. The Scranton, Pennsylvania “Report of City Controller” references a countersigned warrant of $190 to Attica Traffic Signal Co. in that year’s Municipal Improvement Loan.

Attica traffic light in the 1927 Municipal Index (courtesy of Willis Lamm)

Attica traffic light in the 1927 Municipal Index (courtesy of Willis Lamm)

Attica in the 1925 Municipal Index (courtesy of Willis Lamm)

Attica in the 1925 Municipal Index (courtesy of Willis Lamm)

In 1925 and 1927, Attica were advertising in the Municipal Index, a trade catalog of everything a typical town or city would need as far as infrastructure and equipment. The images of the signals appear to be illustrations, especially in the 1925 ad, so I’m not feeling any luck finding something that accurately represents what I have. Both illustrations could potentially be it. Sort of. Based on the fact that these are the only dated images of these signals, I can only conclude that my Attica was likely made in the mid to late 1920s. If I had to put an exact year, I’d go with 1927, making my signal 90 years old this year.

As for photos from others’ collections, that was an almost dead end, too, which I’m relatively OK with. The gentleman I bought this one from said he was selling it because he had two of them. I’m told that a fellow collector has one, although I didn’t see it when I was visiting him with a group of enthusiasts. My visit was couple of months before I got mine so I had no reason to ask about it. And I know of one other, but is in need of a few key parts.

So it turns out that this Attica traffic light is rare. Really rare. I have one of four currently-known Attica traffic signals in the world. If you have one or know someone who has one, I’d love to hear about it. If you come across one yourself, buy it and cherish it. These signals are beyond “few and far between” and should be on the Endangered Species list. I’m keeping mine.

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, a 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!