I watch the colors switch again and I pull up just a smidgen. I’ve been here five minutes and thirty-two seconds. I’ve watched the light change again and again, and I watch the frustration change the colors of the faces of fellow commuters.
I finally make it through, but the lights keep changing. Green. Yellow. Red. Green. Yellow. Red. Their little cycles endure through the rain, and as cars pass through their unspoken gates, the days pass too.
I drive to dinner. The lights do just as they are supposed to. We wait and then we go. All of us obey the little sign in the sky. And I wonder, not for the first time, how it is that all these diverse humans going to different destinations decided that they would yield to strangers so that all might better survive.
I pass the time at yet another stoplight wondering what this particular road must have looked like a hundred year ago (I’m not normal, I know). Did the horse and carriage compete with the newfangled automobile? Did the well-dressed business man pass by the dirt-clad paper boy, both on their way to work but meeting here at the intersection of the times?
Once I arrive at my destination, I do a quick google search. The first gas-operated light made its debut in London. Motor cars hadn’t even been invented yet when these two words “stop” and “proceed” were illuminated so the life could continue after the sun set. These words were the perfect banners for the crosswalk the world barreled towards in 1868. The innovation didn’t last long. The new technology needed an operator, and the policeman controlling it was an unfortunate victim in the transition to modernity. The gas leaked, the light exploded, and the operator was terribly injured. Proceeding, then stopping.
The world didn’t seem to try again until the century that was called twentieth. By this time, motor cars were becoming common. Policemen couldn’t control every intersection, so a few tinkered their way to a solution. It wasn’t (mainly) the scientists that came up with the answer, but simple keepers of the law and of the order who invented traffic lights.
Traffic signals transitioned for and with the technology. In the fifties, the invention of computers made the outdoor lamps even more effective. They’ve long since ceased to be a marvel, these signal semaphores. They are hung on wires and mounted on poles. Some hang vertically; some are securely arranged horizontally so a hurricane or tornado will not interrupt their faithful cycles by blowing them down. Eight to twelve inches of light, they often take the shape of a circle. If it isn’t a circle of red, it might be an arrow of green. The arrow tells us how to go more than it tells us where to go.
Contrary to the feeling of the moment, the red light doesn’t last forever. The angry commuters put down their phones and drive on through. In most cases, the light does its job and the people follow along with the laws and customs. Everyone arrives safely. Unless they don’t.
The world arrives at a junction of the times again. Could the vibrant green days of the traffic light be meeting their golden fade to red? These lights haven’t been around forever. Machines continue to make the jobs of humans different. Cars might soon drive themselves. One day, the world might look back on the roads of our time and wonder at the ineffective chaos. They’ll smile at their transformations, if they pause long enough to look out the windows and see.
For now, I’ll continue to encounter my chaos and be grateful for the light that almost always breaks it. And next time I’m miffed by how much time I waste at red lights, I’ll fill the time with gratitude.
Stop lights are a little bit like love. Love always, perfectly breaks the darkness. Love is the light that shines in night and day despite the winds that threaten, the careless ones who plow through with only their own motives in mind, and the innovations that change nearly everything else. And though traffic stops might one day pass away, Love never will.
(I might not have gotten all of these facts right. This is just a fun fact interest of the moment, not a valid source. For possibly more reliable information, turn to http://www.historyhouse.co.uk/articles/first_traffic_lights.html, https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-1460,00.html, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-electric-traffic-signal-installed, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/history-traffic-lights-100th-anniversary-first-electric-traffic-system-1459680).