The History of Turn Signals

The History of Turn Signals

At the start of the 1900s, automobile drivers signaled to other drivers and pedestrians their intention to turn (or stop) their vehicles with their hands.  There were no turn signals in these days. The hand signals for right and right turns and stop/slow have not changed since that time. Just watch a bicyclist and you will see these in action.

The first modern electric turn signal can be credited to Edgar A. Walz, Jr. who in 1925 obtained a patent for one and tried to market it to the big car manufacturers. Believe it or not the car manufacturers just weren’t interested, and the patent expired 14 years later with no buyers.

Interesting, the turn signal situation in Europe began differently. The answer to the problem for needing to signal turns or lane changes was originally done by hand signals but later through via “semaphore indicators”.  The indicators mechanical arms known as Trafficators mounted on the cars’ sides. These Trafficators were powered by electro-magnets that raise one arm with a bright light (almost always mounted high on the door pillar) indicating a turn was about to be made.

Back in the States, Buick was the first United States automaker to offer factory-installed flashing turn signals. Introduced in the late 1930s as a safety feature, turn signals were advertised as the “Flash-Way Directional Signal”. The flashing signals worked only on the rear lights.  In 1940 Buick changed around the directional indicators by extending the signals to front lights, then adding a self-canceling mechanism. That year (1940) directional signals became standard on Buick, Cadillac, Hudson and LaSalle vehicles and available (for a cost of $7.95) on Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac .

For those vehicles without them, the Illinois-based Lester Company offered a Simplex Direction Signal Kit for ’42 to ’49 models, advertising that these signals, which could be purchased for $8.95, would work “like factory-installed models on expensive cars”.

In 1968 the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108 required amber lens front turn signals; rear signals could be either red or amber.  Note: It was also in the 60s that 4-way hazard flashers were first required on manufactured vehicles.

Reliable light-emitting diode (LED) technology for signal lights came about in the 1980s. Because such lights didn’t depend on lens color, they emit true amber and red hues, clear lenses could be used. While it has not happened yet, it may not be long before filament bulbs have been 100% phased out.

Although the basic turn signal technology has not changed in years, future improvements could include increased strength and durability for parts that are always being used and abused, an alert when the turn signal switches off even before we have started our turn, and turn-signal tones that we can personalize. While there is still a need for such innovations, we are all better off relying on technological wizardry rather than hand signals. We hope that you have enjoyed learning about how modern-day turn signals came to be! Thank you to the Service team at DCH, a Chrysler dealership in Temecula, CA, for their assistance with this article!