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John Peake Knight

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John Peake Knight (1828–1886) was a railway engineer and inventor, credited with inventing the first traffic light.

John Peake Knight was born in Nottingham and attended Nottingham High School. He left school at 12 to work in the parcel room of Derby Railway Station. Peake Knight was promoted quickly and by the age of 20 was Traffic Manager for the London to Brighton Line. He did a great deal to improve the quality of railway travel, introducing the Pullman car and safe carriages with alarm pulls for ladies.

He and his wife had five sons and the eldest founded J. P. Knight, tug boat operators.

John Peake Knight is credited with inventing the original traffic light in 1868, a semaphore system based on railway signalling.

In 1866, a year in which 1102 people were killed and 1334 injured on roads in London, he proposed a signalling system to regulate the horse-drawn traffic and reduce the number of road accidents.

This was not the traffic light we know today, but was a revolving gas-powered lantern with a red and a green light at the end of a wooden arm. Knight's invention was similar to the railway signals of the time. The traffic light was originally placed near London's House of Commons, at the intersection of Great George Street and Bridge Street, London SW1. However, the lights exploded during use in 1869 because of a gas leak and were removed by 1870. A policeman nearby on points duty was badly injured.

In 1910, Ernest Sirrine of Chicago improved the light by adding automatics. He also changed the red and green lights to words that read proceed and stop.

In 1912 Lester Wire, a detective in Salt Lake City, Utah, opted to go back to red and green lights and is credited with inventing traffic lights as we know them today. However, this time, electric lights developed in the USA were used instead of the original gas-powered lanterns.

In 1922, Garrett Morgan had witnessed a serious accident at an intersection in Chicago and invented a traffic control device and applied for a patent on it in 1922. His invention was a hand-cranked mechanical sign system using signs that could be switched relatively easily by a traffic control officer. His device was relatively simple, yet had key additional safety features that many others at the time did not have. In addition to having "stop" and "go" indicators, it had an "all stop" signal that could be used to clear the intersection to allow pedestrians to cross or to stop cross-traffic before signaling a different direction to proceed. It also had a "half mast" warning position to indicate general caution at times when the device operator was not present. In addition to the signs, his device featured lights and warning bells powered by a battery or a connection to a main power source.

Peake Knight died in 1886 and the Prince of Wales had a special wreath placed on his coffin during the funeral. He is buried in Brompton Cemetery in London.

A memorial plaque to Peake Knight's invention can be seen at 12 Bridge Street, Westminster, the corner building close to where the original traffic lights were erected. Minister for Roads and Road Safety Baroness Hayman unveiled the plaque on 4 March 1998


1887 Obituary [1]

JOHN PEAKE KNIGHT was born in Nottingham on the 13th of January, 1828, and was educated at the local Grammar School, the Rev. W. Butler being then head master.

He left school in 1841, and commenced his business life in the Parcel- and Telegraph-Offices of the Midland Railway at Derby Station, where his elder brothers, William and Sam, were likewise then employed. He was also for a short time engaged with Mr. Peter Clarke on the York and North Midland line at York Station, acting in the capacity of private secretary to that gentleman. When Mr. Peter Clarke was appointed General Manager of the Brighton Railway, he sent for his former assistant, in whose welfare he had always taken a friendly interest. In this way Mr. J. P. Knight first became connected with the Brighton Company, taking up his duties in the Audit Offices, which were then at Brighton, in the year 1846.

In 1853 he left the Brighton Company, and was engaged by its neighbour the South Eastern, whose London terminus was then at Bricklayers Arms. He was shortly afterwards appointed Superintendent of that line, and held the post until 1869. In the latter year [George Hawkins|Mr. George Hawkins]], the Brighton Company’s Traffic-Manager, retired, and Mr. Knight was appointed his successor. He had not long been Traffic Manager before the Directors, being so well satisfied with him, made him their General Manager, which position he retained until the day of his death.

Enjoying the thorough confidence of his Directors, and having full scope for carrying out his enterprising and far-seeing plans for the development and improvement of the line, Mr. Knight succeeded in making the Brighton railway one of the most popular in the kingdom, with a deserved reputation for careful working and immunity from accident. He was more especially known by the general public for his skill and smartness in organising provision for the pressure of traffic on the occasion of popular holidays such as those made by statute and occurring four times a year ; gatherings at the Crystal Palace ; Volunteer Reviews ; and above all, the Derby Day. In respect of the latter it was his custom some days in advance of the great race-meeting to make a special survey of the line and rolling-stock, minutely inspecting the track, and making sure that everything was well prepared for the great strain shortly to be put upon it.

For the material improvement of the line under his charge, Mr. Knight worked unceasingly. He was instrumental in the adoption of the interlocking of signals, and the block system. In the years 1877 and 1878, he went very fully into the necessity for providing passenger-trains with an efficient continuous brake, and made extensive and exhaustive inquiries with respect to the merits of the various kinds then in use, which led to the adoption by the Brighton Company of the Westinghouse automatic brake, with which the whole of its trains are now fully equipped.

He in 1877 introduced Pullman Cars, which have been very popular with the travelling public on the line, so much so that the number of cars has from time to time been increased. It may also be mentioned that in December, 1881, a novel feature was introduced on the Brighton line, namely, a train composed entirely of “Pullmans,” consisting of parlour drawing-room- restaurant- and smoking-cars, all communicating with each other, enabling passengers to pass through the entire length of the train. This train still runs between London and Brighton, two or three ordinary first class carriages having recently been attached to it.

Through the instrumentality of Mr. Knight the system of lighting carriages by electric accumulators was first introduced in England in the Pullman-car train referred to, and it has been in operation and working satisfactorily in that train ever since. He also initiated, about 1884, the system. of lighting carriages by electricity generated from the axles of the brake-van, described by his colleague, Mr. Stroudley, M.Inst.C.E. This system is now at work in several trains.

After the Paris International Exhibition of 1878, Mr. Knight received the distinction and decoration of the Legion of Honour from the French Government. He also received many other distinctive marks of honour from Royal and distinguished personages. The Crown Prince of Germany forwarded, through Count Munster, in the year 1881, a bronze bust of himself for Mr. Knight’s acceptance, in acknowledgment of the many kind attentions shown by him to their Royal and Imperial Highnesses the Crown Prince and Princess during their stay in England in the summer of that year. Mr. Knight had conferred upon him by the Emperor and Empress of Austria the Order of the Iron Cross. He had the special privilege of making all the arrangements in connection with the reception of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, on his return from India in the year 1876, for which Mr. Knight received one of the copies of the few commemoration medals His Royal Highness had struck to mark the event. Mr. Knight also received, in the year 1876, at the hands of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales two fine portraits of their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales, accompanied by a letter from Lieut.-Colonel Arthur Ellis, expressing the Prince’s appreciation of his constant readiness to secure punctuality whenever the Prince has had occasion to travel on the railway under Mr. Knight’s charge. Queen Marie Amhlie likewise presented to him, when he was in the service of the South Eastern Railway Company, a valuable ring, and also a handsome bracelet for Mrs. Knight.

Mr. Knight was elected an Associate of the Institution on the 7th of May, 1872, and was also a Lieutenant-Colonel in the “ Engineer and Railway Volunteer Staff Corps.” Mr. Knight for many years enjoyed uninterrupted good health, but on the 18th of March, 1886, he was seized with a fit of apoplexy, though by the skilful and unremitting exertions of his physicians, he made tolerable progress towards convalescence. It was manifest, however, to the Directors that when Mr. Knight returned to his duties on the 22nd of May following he had not by any means recovered his usual health. He was present at the Brighton Company’s half-yearly meeting, on the 21st of July, 1886, when the chairman congratulated the shareholders upon the improvement in Mr. Knight’s health, and upon his being present on that occasion. On the following day Mr. Knight attended at his office, and was engaged with Mr. Humphriss, his chief assistant, in the transaction of his duties, until the afternoon. Immediately afterwards he left town on a short visit to some friends at Chigwell, and about 9 o’clock in the evening of the same day he had another apoplectic fit, falling at the dinner table, but remaining conscious for about two hours afterwards, and exchanging conversation with Mrs. Knight and the physicians in attendance on him. His illness terminated fatally on the morning of the following day, in the fifty-ninth year of his age.

On the 28th of July he was interred at Brompton Cemetery, in the presence of the Directors and of a great concourse of his associates of the Brighton railway, as well as of representatives from all the leading railway companies in the kingdom, and of several foreign ones with which his own line had been connected.


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