California Retrospective

In 1915, 'human semaphores' took over traffic control in L.A.

In 1915, 'human semaphores' replaced a complex whistle system for directing traffic in Los Angeles

A police officer named F.M. Wilson made Los Angeles traffic history 99 years ago.

He was hailed as one of the first "human semaphores" who ushered in a new way of directing traffic in downtown Los Angeles at a time when exploding car traffic along with trolleys, buses, pedestrians and the occasional horse were making getting around the city an ordeal.

Until 1915, Los Angeles officials often used a complex whistle system to tell drivers and pedestrians when to move and when to stop. The system was confusing and ineffective, officials at the time said.

In the new system, police officers stood in the middle of intersections directing traffic in a new way.

The Times described it this way: "The traffic men are instructed to stand with face and back directed towards the traffic that is stopped and when the change is made for the traffic the other way, the policeman will make a half turn with the body to the left, at the same time bringing the right arm around with a becoming motion as a signal for traffic in the other direction to proceed."

Police officials were bullish on the new process because it didn't require drivers and motorists to listen for commands.

"There were several serious objections to the whistle signals at the crossings," a Lt. Butler said at the time. "and the new system had entirely eliminated them.

"Now pedestrians and drivers of vehicles cannot become confused once they understand the system," added Butler, who headed LAPD's traffic division. "All they have to do is look for the uniformed policeman. If his back or face is toward them they know traffic is closed, but when they see either side of his face they know it is safe to negotiate the crossing. Under the old system many accidents were narrowly averted because of failure to hear the officer's whistle and sometimes because of inability to discover in time which way was being opened."

That's where F.M. Wilson came in. The Times noted he was "in charge at Fifth Street and Broadway. During the rush period between 3 and 6 p.m., he keeps on an average 15,000 pedestrians an hour moving, a fraction more than five street cars per minute and about 1,500 automobiles, wagons and other vehicles each hour."

"This is a big improvement over the whistle," Wilson said. "I used to blow the old whistle so much it made my head ache and I know the shrill tone was an annoyance to the public. Now traffic moves more rapidly and with less confusion. I believe that by eliminating the whistle we can be more benefit to the pedestrians, too. In the past we were compelled to interrupt interrogators with a shrill whistle blast, but now we can talk away even though it is necessary to change our position."

Of course, traffic cops became more artistic since the days of Wilson.

By the 1970, it took more than polite hand gestures to move traffic in L.A. In 1979, The Times introduced readers to Officer William Melvin, who was not shy about giving difficult drivers a nasty glare.

"Melvin isn't one to hide his emotions. He mans the rush hour post at 7th and Figueroa Sts. When he wants you to GO, you know. When he wants you to STOP, you know. And when something about the way you drive, or the looks of your vehicle, or anything else leaves him just-plain-disgusted … well … you know about that too."

In 2002, The Times introduced readers to Rodney Smith, who "directs traffic as if he's conducting the world's greatest symphony orchestra. A traffic officer with L.A.'s Department of Transportation, Smith has been unclogging intersections and drawing crowds with his kinetic moves for 14 years.

"On holidays, Smith, 36, can work at as many as eight intersections, looking at times as if he's dancing a hula, petting a dog or auditioning for a scene in a Jackie Chan film. Unfazed by power outages, bad weather or presidential motorcades, Smith bends his body like rubber and creates a fluid perpetual wave with his hands, often rebuking cell phone users by hanging up a pantomimed telephone. We asked the maestro about his chops."

Smith described the music he danced to: "Barry Manilow won't work. Before I go out, I may listen to an old George Benson CD or James Brown's "Payback." One day it was the Stray Cats."

Smith directed traffic at intersections across the city — from Century City to Los Angeles International Airport. He said his performances sometimes drew crowds who would look on at the show. He said the worst intersection to cover is Century and Aviation boulevards near LAX — when it's raining.

"I had women flash me when I was younger. Or they say, 'Those hands are sexy.' I've had phone numbers thrown at me. Or they asked me, 'What else can you do with those sexy hands?'" he said.

Recently, Los Angeles has been adding personnel to direct traffic on downtown L.A. streets.

But would they mind being called "human semaphores"?

scott.harrison@latimes.com

shelby.grad@latimes.com

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