Last week Lisa Murray mentioned a few of her favourite pieces on the Dictionary, and today I thought we’d follow one of those up and talk about road markings. While this might seem to some a somewhat mundane topic, even the most everyday aspects of the city can have an intriguing history when you look beneath the surface.
Governments are forever trying to keep up with innovation and new technologies through regulations and legislation. In terms of cityscapes it could be argued that the introduction of the car in the early 20th century was the biggest innovation of all, and this meant of course that new regulations had to be introduced as well.
We now take for granted the use of traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, line markings on the road to show which side you should be on or when it is safe to overtake, and some of us are even old enough to remember when steel studs were used to mark turning points at intersections (happily referred to as ‘silent cops’).
All of these now ubiquitous pieces of road infrastructure had a starting point, and all were introduced in response to the growing number of cars and motor vehicles appearing on city streets in the years after World War I. Through the 1920s in particular, the mix of horse drawn traffic, cars, trucks, pedestrians, bicycles and trams created a chaos on the roads that was easily comparable to today, and many new ideas were brought forward to combat congestion and frustration.
The first to appear where the silent cops, round, raised steel studs about the size of a large pizza that were set in the road at T junctions. These were meant to keep drivers on the left side of the road when turning so as to avoid head on collisions. Introduced in Sydney as a trial in September 1921 after Traffic Inspector Alfred Edwards had seen them in use in California, they were rapidly adopted around the country despite initial complaints from motorists who thought their cars would be damaged when driving over them.
Around the same time another bold new experiment was underway as white lines were painted up to mark lanes on the road for cars. In 1925 lines had been painted across roads to create safe zones for pedestrians to cross – until that time, they could (and did) cross anywhere. The first trial of lines in the road to marshall cars came the following year, when police hand-painted a solid line down the middle of the intersection at King and Market Streets to show drivers what side they should be on. Prior to this, while most drivers kept to a side for ease, there was no set rule and cars, drays, horses, cabs etc crisscrossed at will. On large and busy roads like Parramatta Road and Oxford Street with curves and intersections, it could get especially dangerous. It was not until 1938 that a line marking machine was purchased by the Department of Main Roads to do this job. The style of lines would also change over time – solid centre lines were replaced by dotted lines when paint became scarce during World War II.
As for traffic lights, these were like something from a science fiction film when first introduced – automated lights doing the job of traffic police. The first set was installed in Sydney in October 1933 on the corner of Kent and Market Streets. Newspapers referred to the lights as a robot or ‘thinking machine’ with the name of ‘Eva’ (short for ‘Electromatic Vehicle Actuated Traffic Control’).
Articles on Eva’s ‘cool, fair’ personality and her ‘flashing imperious eyes of red, amber and green’ accompanied explanations of what each colour of the light meant. Each light itself had ‘go’ and stop’ printed on the face so when it was illuminated you could see the colour and read what it meant. People crowded along the sides of the intersection to see these marvels in action, while many motorists, either confused or outraged at this evidence of political correctness gone mad, simply drove through them. Although drivers eventually became used to them and they were deemed a success, it wasn’t until 1937 that four more sets of lights were installed in the city.
Mark Dunn is the former Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!