Sparking Innovation – Electrifying Indiana’s First Traffic Light

 Indiana Union Traction 437, then Indiana Railroad 437, sits in a traction terminal at a date unknown. This car, which is part of the HHTC collection, frequently operated on the line through Carmel, Ind. Photo (C) 2018 HHTC Collection.

Indiana Union Traction 437, then Indiana Railroad 437, sits in a traction terminal at a date unknown. This car, which is part of the HHTC collection, frequently operated on the line through Carmel, Ind. Photo (C) 2018 HHTC Collection.

Contributed by Will Hazen

Leslie Haines was born in 1883 in rural Hamilton County, Ind. at Carmel, which numbered less than 400 residents at the time. Haines grew up working alongside his father, the town blacksmith, but had dreams of joining the Navy. Following his dream, Haines enlisted in 1906 and circumnavigated the globe in Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, training under Dr. Lee DeForest, a leader in the development of wireless technology. Meanwhile, the Union Traction Company of Indiana had set up shop in Carmel, allowing Carmel residents and storeowners to tap into a valuable new asset: electricity.

 Indiana’s first electrified traffic signal in Carmel, Ind. - invented by Haines. Carmel Clay Historical Society Photo.

Indiana’s first electrified traffic signal in Carmel, Ind. - invented by Haines. Carmel Clay Historical Society Photo.

When Haines returned to Carmel in 1910, he took full advantage of the electricity provided by the interurban railway. At first, Haines created Christmas tree lights to brighten the holidays, miniature electric trains, and even rudimentary electric washing machines he gifted to his wife and mother. Whilst working at the Home Elevator in Indianapolis, Haines often stayed late into the evening, experimenting with both mechanical and electrical devices. Many elevator employees noticed the prototype traffic light sitting in his office. However, only John Hobbs, who ran the elevator, saw potential in the device and gave Haines a larger workspace with a foundry to manufacture the device.

After tinkering for years, Haines debuted his new invention in 1924, a device that would control busy intersections through the use of a revolving-pole-mounted indicator with a timing mechanism - a precursor to the modern traffic light.  After seeing promising results, Haines set up shop in the upper level of Rue Hinshaw’s town garage, and began hiring employees to help manufacture and maintain his device.

Born in Carmel, Ind. nearby the Union Traction electric railway – this was Indiana’s first automated electric traffic signal.

By 1926, Haines had perfected the design, adding a yellow light and housing that most drivers would recognize today. Although the traffic light designed by Haines was never realized as a success, the design has changed very little from what most of us use on a daily basis. In a city now dominated by roundabouts, the first intersection in Indiana to be controlled by a traffic light still is, with a small plaque in the corner denoting Haines’ landmark invention.

Today, the Hoosier Heartland Trolley Company possesses two Union Traction Company cars built in 1925, No. 429 and No. 437. These cars likely witnessed the first automated electric traffic light in the United States. Electric railways like Union Traction not only played a crucial role in providing transportation and electricity to small communities like Carmel, but also in sparking innovation. One of Haines’ original traffic lights can be viewed at the museum of the Carmel-Clay Historical Society, located just steps away from where interurban cars zipped through town, sparking innovation within small Indiana communities like Carmel.

Consider a contribution to our nonprofit organization to keep the legacy of stories like Haines’ alive through the preservation of our electric railway heritage -

this is just another way in which we’re #sparkingimagination