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History of the “Modern” Turn Signal

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history of the modern turn signal - mitsubishi lancer

The history of the modern turn signal is a lot less involved than you might think–and calling the turn signal “modern” might be a tad too generous
Pictured: 2014 Mitsubishi Lancer

Turn signals can be a source of comfort and frustration on the road. Comfort when the driver ahead lets you know where they intend to go; frustration every other time.

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Perhaps this is because the history of the “modern” turn signal can be traced back to the 1940s. In fact, the first flashing electric turn signal was used on the 1938 Buick as a new safety feature, and what’s baffling is that the only real innovation since was the addition of the self-cancelling mechanism to the steering column, two years later. Today’s turn signal is almost unchanged.

To be sure, the “Flash-Way Directional Signal”—as Buick advertised it—was a great invention at the time; but as all drivers know, it has its flaws, including but not limited to: the annoying ticking noise (or conversely, how easy it is to leave it on without noticing), the ease with which it’ll shut off on its own, and poor reliability.

Before this final version, the turn signal was constantly being reinvented. At first, we simply stuck our arms out of the window to let people know where we meant to go—something still occasionally done today. In 1907, Percy Douglas-Hamilton applied for a patent for a device “indicating the intended movements of vehicles,” and in 1914, silent-film star Florence Lawrence designed a mechanical signaling arm. In 1925, Edgar A. Walz, Jr. secured a patent for a flashing turn signal and tried to market it to major car manufacturers, but they were uninterested.

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Up until Buick’s Flash-Way Directional Signal became standard on numerous models in the 1940s, the turn signal was constantly being improved and tinkered with. How is it that today, we’re still using 67-year-old technology?