Who invented the Turn Signal?

Who invented the Turn Signal?

While you might argue some people don’t use them enough – or at all – turn signals are one of the most vital components of the modern car.

If you think there are too many incidents on the roads today, imagine what the state of play would be if we weren’t letting each other know we were turning.

Whether you call them turn signals, blinkers or indicators, this is the history of how they came to be on your vehicle.

When were turn signals invented?

It wasn’t until about 20 years into the history of the car that turn signals came into some sort of existence.

In the early 20th century, hand signals were the mode of indicating when and where you were about to steer your vehicle – a simple movement of the arm in the direction of where you were about to turn was all that was needed as a courtesy for your fellow motorist.

When 1907 came around, a man by the name of Percy Douglas-Hamilton patented an original device based on the rudimentary hand signal: a hand-shaped mechanism that indicated the intended movement of a vehicle.

Just seven years later, it was a silent-movie star, Florence Lawrence, who started to move the game forward. Her idea was for the driver to push a button in the cabin which would raise or lower a flag on the car’s rear bumper in the direction of intended motion.

Unfortunately for Florence Lawrence, the invention was not patented, and no official credit (or profit) was received.

Who exactly invented turn signals?

When it came to the emergence of what we know today, we can thank Mr Edgar A. Walz Jr. who, in 1925, patented the first modern turn signal.

Consisting of two flashing arrows and a brake light, Walz Jr.’s invention was the ultimate version of all those that came before, and set about attempting to sell his creation to every automotive manufacturer he could, however…

No one was interested – for 14 years, the concept went unsold, and the patent expired.

When did production cars start using turn signals?

Turn signals on a van

It was Buick in 1939 that introduced the ‘Flash-Way Directional Signal’ to its cars, and helped such a device gain traction and popularity.

In 1940, Buick extended this idea to add turn signals to the front of its cars, as well as adding a self-cancelling mechanism.

What started as a ‘safety feature’ was now standard on cars made by the likes of Buick and Cadillac; however, you’d need to cough up $7.95 if you wished to have them on your Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, or Pontiac.

For any 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”.

What are ‘Semaphore’ turn signals?

While the US was creating something more akin to what became the mainstream in turn signal design, things in Europe were being done a little differently.

First appearing in the early 1900s, semaphore signals – known also as trafficators – are signals which rise from the door pillar of a vehicle to indicate the intended change of direction.

As the popularity of the now contemporary turn signal rose, the commonality of the semaphore signal began to dwindle, and are seldom seen except on vehicles of a classic nature.

When were turn signals made mandatory?

Right up to the late 1960s, turn signals were very much seen as an add-on device for your car, but before the decade was up, regulations began to be written up across the world to make them mandatory on cars.

Motorcycles followed in 1973 then, in 1980, the light-emitting diode (LED) was introduced to replace the filament bulb for the job of being the latest iteration of the turn signal.

With LEDs in place, such lights didn’t depend on lens color; as LEDs emit true amber and red hues, clear lenses could be used.

Turn signals today

Turn signal on side of car

Although the turn signal is one of the more simple devices on our vehicles, that hasn’t stopped manufacturers pushing forward with new ideas.

Ford in 2011 brought us the three-blink function, for example, allowing a driver to quickly indicate their directional change without having to fully-deploy the signal stalk, and it would cancel out after three blinks.

As well as turn signals being added subsequently to wing mirrors, big names such as Audi and Volkswagen have been introducing contemporary signal styles with flair to turn heads.