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The rather unremarkable tale of Lester Wire, and the rather remarkable invention that changed the world

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The intersection of 200 South and Main in Salt Lake City is where the first electric traffic light was installed in 1912.

Lee Benson

It seems so obvious now. But then that’s the thing about inventions. They’re always plain to see in hindsight. 

But back in 1912, four years after Henry Ford introduced the Model T and automobiles were competing with trolleys, wagons, buggies, horses, the occasional bicycle and pedestrians for right of way in the roadways, there was no real plan, other than fistfights, for handling traffic snarls at intersections.

Into this problem came a 24-year-old cop named Lester Wire.

Wire was new to the Salt Lake City Police Department. A Salt Lake native, he attended the University of Utah as a law student but dropped out because of the expense and decided instead on a career in law enforcement.

The police chief must have seen something in the new officer, because he appointed him to head the department’s first ever traffic squad.

Wire sized up the messy situation. He could position his officers at the busiest downtown intersections, which he did, but there were more busy intersections than there were officers, for one thing, and for another, it was scary being out there.

Noodling on this, he had a literal lightbulb moment.

Why not connect lights to the trolley wires, a red one for stop and a green one for go, and place them in a box on top of a pole in the middle of the intersection?

The traffic cop could control traffic with the flip of a switch.

History is vague on the details of exactly how Wire constructed his invention and how long it took, but it is not vague on where and when he first tried it out:

The intersection of 200 South and Main in downtown Salt Lake City in the year 1912.

The world had its first electric traffic light.

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A replica of the world’s first electric traffic light sits in a place of prominence at the Utah Department of Transportation headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Lee Benson


In a perfect universe, Lester Wire recognized exactly what he had wrought — an invention that would wind up in every city on Earth — secured the appropriate patents, and retired at an early age as Utah’s first multimillionaire.

That is not, however, how it played out. At first, people laughed at what looked like a bird house suspended on a pole in the middle of the street. Then, just as they started getting used to the idea, Lester joined the Army and went to France to fight in World War I. When he returned in 1919, many other places around the country had copied what he’d first invented. He rejoined the police department, this time as a detective.

The inventor of the traffic light remained on the force until his retirement in 1946. He died in 1958.

Lester’s original traffic light was soon removed from its perch on 200 S. Main, replaced by nicer, fancier models that included, among other improvements, yellow lights and automatic timers.

The original found its way to Tracy Aviary, where it was used as an actual bird house. After his death, Lester’s family attempted to retrieve the contraption and preserve it as a memorial, but it had disappeared.

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A sign in the lobby of the Utah Department of Transportation headquarters tells of the world’s first electric traffic light installed in Salt Lake City.

lee benson

But the legend lived on, and when the Utah Department of Transportation remodeled its office building at 2060 S. 2760 West in Salt Lake City — in 2012, appropriately enough — it placed a replica of Lester Wire’s traffic light in a prominent place in the lobby.

“It’s the first thing you see; we wanted to make it the key focus of the area,” said Lisa Miller, traveler information manager for UDOT. “We’re proud of our innovation heritage. We’re proud of Lester Wire. He saw a need and he proactively found a solution.”

Miller said Lester’s head start has kept Utah at the forefront of traffic light innovation down through the years.

“The connectivity we have in Utah is second to none,” she said, pointing to UDOT’s robust fiber optic network that runs across the entire state. “From Salt Lake City we can operate traffic signals in Moab, St. George, Logan and everywhere in between,” she said. “All at the touch of a button.”

What would Lester say about all this?

“That’s a great question,” said Miller. “I would speculate that he would say, ‘You took a good idea and you ran with it.’”

And patented it, hopefully.