Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
The persistent rumour that the traffic light in Potsdamer Platz was the first such light in the world (or at least in Europe) is as unrelenting as it is incorrect. Despite what the guidebooks or travel pages may tell you, the light installed at the top of the original, over 10-metre tall traffic tower constructed on Potsdamer Platz on the night of October 20, 1924, was neither the first traffic light in Europe nor even in Germany.
A gas traffic light designed by John Peake Knight, a railway engineer from Nottingham, appeared in London’s Westminster as early as 1868 (although the first tests go back to 1866); this light, meant to help contain the chaos that the area around the Westminster Bridge had become, had, however, the unfortunate tendency to explode, causing even more chaos on the roads and, eventually, also serious injuries to the ‘bobby’ who operated it. As a result of the accident which left one policeman maimed for life, the idea of a traffic light was abandoned in Europe for the next 50 years.
The first electric traffic light appeared on the Old Continent in Paris in 1922, on the corner of Rue de Rivoli and Boulevard de Sébastopol. Germany did not lag behind but it was not Berlin that was in the avant-garde. Hamburg beat Berlin by two years: its first three-coloured electric light was installed on Stephanplatz in the same year as Paris. However, when the Verkehrsturm– designed by Jan Krämer and constructed, not surprisingly, by Siemens – did arrive in Berlin, it proved to be a god-send.
With twenty-six tram lines, five bus lines, and over 20,000 cars per day, not to mention cyclists, pedestrians and the 83,000 daily passengers emerging from Potsdamer Bahnhof, Potsdamer Platz was every city planner’s nightmare. The pentagonal traffic tower, which stood over 10 m high, was built on a traffic island in the middle of the crossing on the night of the 20th of October 1924. At 10PM that night the whole traffic on Potsdamer Platz was put on hold until 3AM when the three horizontally placed lights – red for ‘traffic must stop’, green for ‘traffic free to go’ and white for ‘pedestrians may cross’ – began to shine. The additional blue lights were also installed to alert the public to sudden signal changes.
During the day, traffic was regulated by a policeman who stood on the platform 7.5 m above the ground and used his arms to signal the change. Equipped with a telephone, a fire alarm as well as the newly-introduced Polizeimelder – a direct line to the nearest police station – he was responsible for what was happening on the streets below. The tower was dismantled on its thirteenth birthday during excavations for a new S-Bahn tunnel, the Nord-Süd-Tunnel running under Potsdamer Platz. It never returned.
In 1997, Siemens AG built a replica of Berlin’s first traffic light on more or less the same spot as the original; it is one of the few elements of the new Potsdamer Platz with a direct link to its busy past.
[The above story – in a slightly altered version – is part of the chapter “Bright Lights” (about Berlin´s illumination) in “Notmsparker´s Berlin Companion”.]