Traffic lights were inspired by pirates with lanterns!

Traffic lights were inspired by pirates with lanterns!

By Roger, age 11

I started to write a story about lanterns. Lanterns are handheld light sources. In the old days, people did not have electricity or batteries, so lanterns were used before flashlights. They had a wick that was lit and oil in the bottom to allow the wick to burn slowly for hours.

I thought it was kind of boring until I did a little research and discovered that lanterns started with pirates! Yes, you know about pirates with peg legs, an eye patch and a parrot? Well, in fact, in the PIRATE CODE – yes, apparently pirates had a code – it did not permit burning candles below deck. This is cool. I did not know pirates could read, let alone have a code of rules to follow.

So, anyway, only lanterns were allowed below deck as there was less chance of starting a fire. The flame was surrounded by a glass globe and around that was a cage-like metal frame, so even if dropped, it was less likely to break and start a fire. Ok, that is cool; but wait – there is more.

Railroads got hold of lanterns and had the globes made out of different colours of glass.

Have you seen traffic lights? Of course, you have. They are the signals at street crossings that show red, yellow or green. They tell drivers when to go (on green), prepare to stop on yellow, and stop on red. So where did this idea come from? Well, join me in a time machine on a quest to find our answer!

A long time ago, railroads needed signs to tell an engineer when to start or stop his train. Hand signals were okay during the day, but no good at night. So they turned to lanterns.

At first they tried getting the railroad crews to just hold the lantern while giving the stop, go, or go-slow signal. This caused some confusion so they came up with the idea of coloured lights.

The colour system worked. In fact, it is still in use today on railroads as a backup to radios.

Anyway, as cars started filling newly constructed roads, it became clear there was a need for control. Lanterns were dusted off and presto. The three-colour light system appeared at street crossings. With the discovery of electricity, the lantern was replaced by flashlights and road signals – and that is how lanterns inspired traffic lights.

So here is an idea for you! Find a traffic light around your island/ country, and take a picture. After you’re done, search up “images for lanterns” then you can compare the differences between the two – one from the past and from present time! You may be surprised how many flashlights still look like lanterns.

The Daily Herald

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