Wandering through the Salt Lake City cemetery one day I came upon the headstone of Lester F. Wire. It’s not unusually ornate or otherwise eye-catching, except for the epitaph.
Lester Farnsworth Wire
September 3, 1887 – April 14, 1958
Electric Traffic Light
Inventor of the electric traffic light?! Turns out there have actually been a couple of guys who claimed to be the inventor of the traffic light, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. Lester Wire had a pretty interesting life, even when you don’t take his invention into account.
Lester was born in Salt Lake City on September 3, 1887 to Frank and Lida Wire. His father was a police officer for Salt Lake City for a good portion of his life. He had three sisters, Ora, Zelta, and Edith.
The Wire’s were Christian Scientists, and according to Frank Wire, they believed that the best treatment for illness was prayer. In 1897 all four Wire children contracted diphtheria and no medical attention was sought for them. At the time, it was expected that they would self-quarantine since it was a highly contagious disease. Not only did they not seek medical treatment, or self-quarantine, the children continued attending school for a few days after becoming sick. Within a week of being ill, Ora aged 4, and Zelta aged 8, had both died from diphtheria. The deaths of the two Wire children caused quite a stir in Salt Lake City and made the local papers for more than a week. Sergeant Wire was eventually charged with manslaughter for their deaths. He continued to state that he believed they were simply suffering from mumps.
Despite the losses they faced at a young age, Lester and Edith seemed to excel in school and with extracurricular activities. Lester was a star football player in high school, and Edith was an accomplished pianist, often giving recitals to crowds of more than 800 people.
Following high school, Lester enrolled in the University of Utah with plans of becoming a lawyer. However, shortly into his schooling he decided that it was just too expensive and decided to become a police officer instead. His father left the Salt Lake City police force around 1899 due to political problems within the department and would spend the rest of his life as a “landscape artist.”
In February 1910 Lester was appointed as a patrolman for the Salt Lake City police. He was soon part of the “revolver team” and would compete in marksmanship competitions. He was known as a crack shot. Lester was appointed to work in traffic division and would stand at an intersection of Second South between Main and State, near where the Gallivan Center and Walker Tower is today.
Within his first few years of work, Lester Wire organized Salt Lake City’s first traffic bureau, wrote the city’s first traffic regulations, and designed the first electrically operated traffic signal that used red and green lights.
The story goes that Wire was inspired by a passage in the Bible about not hiding your candle under a bushel but placing it on a candlestick for the whole world to see, and thought that a traffic light on a pole made perfect sense. Legend says that Lester dipped old lights in red and green paint due to it being Christmastime thinking it looked festive. Who would’ve thought that traffic lights had any connection to Christmas? Lester’s traffic signal also looked remarkably like a bird house. The new signals were placed at Main Street and Second South. It allowed the traffic cops to stand on the corner and operate the lights versus conducting traffic in the middle of the intersection.
While it’s true that Lester Wire wasn’t the first person to invent the traffic signal, he was the first person to invent the electric traffic signal that used red and green lights. He was also instrumental in bringing the traffic signals to Salt Lake City, making Salt Lake City among the first cities in the world, (if not the first), to have electric traffic signals.
By 1920, Officer Wire had been promoted to Detective, and from all accounts he was an excellent detective. He was instrumental in solving over 43 murder cases including two nationally publicized cases. He served in both World Wars, helping found Ambulance Company 343 in WWI and was the chief coordinator of civilian protection working with the FBI and military intelligence agencies during WWII.
Lester Wire died of a heart attack on April 14, 1948 at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 70 years old. Oddly enough, Lester and his sister Edith lived in their parents house their entire lives, never marrying or having families of their own. Edith turned the upstairs portion of the house into a sort of museum for Lester following his death until her death in 1973.
For the longest time Lester’s original traffic signal could be found at the Tracey Aviary, ironically being used as a birdhouse. Lester made numerous improvements on his design throughout his life, but never patented them and never received a dime from his invention.
Lester’s grave can be found in the Salt Lake City Cemetery in plot: P_9_13_3E