Art and pre-car traffic lights

 Royal Academy of Arts
This day in London history: on 10 December 1768, The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in London by George III. The 34 founding members were a group of prominent artists and architects including Sir Joshua Reynolds (who was the first president) and Sir William Chambers, who were determined to achieve professional standing for British art and architecture.They also wanted to provide a venue for exhibitions that would be open to the public; and to establish a school of art through which their skills and knowledge could be passed to future generations of practitioners. The Academy was originally housed in Pall Mall.One century later, on 10 December 1868 (and before the introduction of the automobile), the first traffic lights were installed in London, outside the Palace of Westminster at the corner of Bridge Street, Parliament Street and Great George Street.

The lights resembled railway signals – they used semaphore arms by day, and red (for stop) and green (for caution) gas lamps at night. They were designed by John Peake Knight, who had proposed a signalling system for traffic in a year when over 1,100 people were killed and over 1,300 injured on roads in London.

(Unfortunately, soon after the new lights were installed, a gas leak caused them to explode, injuring a police constable. Perhaps the builders of the lights should have used the principles of Webb’s sewer gas lamp.)

John Peake Knight, who worked in the railway business, also did a great deal to improve the quality of railway travel –he introduced the Pullman car and safe carriages with alarm pulls for ladies.

A memorial plaque to his invention was unveiled in March 1998 on Bridge Street, close to where the original traffic lights would have been erected.

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