John Peake Knight (1828-1886)
The railway engineer whose idea for traffic lights proved explosive.
Notable railway engineer John Peake Knight made train travel much safer and more comfortable. He introduced Pullman lounge cars to trains, added emergency brake cords, and created safe carriages with alarms for women travellers. He is also credited with inventing the first traffic lights.
Nottingham-born John was fascinated by trains throughout his life. He left school at 12 to work at Derby railway station and, by the time he was 20, was Traffic Manager for the London to Brighton railway line. Five years later he was Superintendent of the South Eastern Railway.
His innovative designs for signalling systems helped minimise accidents on the railways. John then had the idea of applying a similar system to the road network – there were plenty of accidents with horse-drawn carts and carriages, long before the car was invented! He proposed semaphore signals for road junctions during the daytime, and gas-powered lamps for the nights, to be operated by policemen.
The first traffic lights were installed near London’s Westminster Bridge in December 1889. They were a great success at first, until one night when one of the gas lamps exploded. The policeman operating the lights was badly burned, and John’s revolutionary idea was abandoned. Traffic lights weren’t seen again in Britain for another 40 years.