The History of Turn Signals
31 Jan 2018
The need to communicate the direction motorized vehicles are turning became an issue as soon as they started to appear on early roads. Even though the speed of horses, bicycles and motorized vehicles was rather slow back then, it was still imperative to know where everyone was going to avoid accidents.
At first, the solution was to default to the old standard: pointing with your finger or using one’s hands in a semaphore fashion as we do on bicycles today. While this worked fine during the day, it was obviously less effective at night.
Electric Turn Signals
The first electric turn signal can be attributed to Edgar A. Walz, Jr. In 1925, Walz secured a patent for an “electrical signaling device.” He tried to market it to the major car manufacturers but, believe it or not, the car manufacturers weren’t interested at that time.
In Europe, the genesis of turn signals began differently. The signaling of turns was originally accomplished by using hand signals, like here in the States, but later via “Semaphore Indicators”. Semaphore indicators were little mechanical arms mounted on the sides of cars and trucks. They were powered by electro-magnets that would raise an arm with a bright lighton it indicating that a turn was about to be made.
Buick was the first here
Back in the States, Buick was the first U.S. automaker to offer factory-installed flashing turn signals. Introduced in 1939 as a safety feature, these early turn signals were advertised as “Flash-Way Directional Signals.”Originally, Buick Flash-Way system only operated on the rear lights. In 1940, Buick enhanced the system by extending the signals to front lights and adding a self-canceling mechanism. That year (1940) directional signals became standard on General Motor’s Buick, Cadillac, LaSalle, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac brands.
For those cars without them, the Illinois-based Lester Company offered a ‘Simplex Direction Signal Kit” for ’42 to ’49 model vehicles. Their advertising copy stated that Lester signals would work “just like the factory-installed models on expensive cars”. The cost for a Lester system was $8.95.
In 1968, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108 required amber (rather than the earlier white) lens front turn signals. Rear signals turn signals were allowed a little more flexibility and could be made in red or amber.
Solid state technology
For the first 50 years of turn signals, the source of light came from incandescent bulbs. While these worked satisfactorily, they had an upper limit of brightness and they would annoyingly “burn out” after 500-1000 hours of use. A new, more reliable technology was needed, not just for turn signals but for all automotive lighting applications.
Light-emitting diode (LED) technology was introduced to the automotive world in the 1980s. Because LED lights do not depend on lens color (they can emit true white, red and amber hues) clear lenses can be used. While it hasn’t happened yet, it may not be long before old filament bulbs have been phased completely out of automobiles.
Our sources at East Hills Jeep of Greenville, a local Jeep dealer in Greenville, NY, warned us about doing it yourself with “aftermarket LEDs,” though. They tell us that the LEDs that come from the factory are designed for longevity and safety. Many of the aftermarket ones are inexpensive alternatives and can overheat. When in doubt, consult your local dealer before adding any high-power LEDs to your vehicle.
Though the basic function of turn signal technology hasn’t changed in years, the technology behind them has. And we can expect it to change even more. Such is the nature of all automotive technology.