Peter J. Yauch, P.E.
TEI Engineers & Planners
Stamps, coins, baseball cards, traffic signals. What do these things have in common? They’re collectables, though the traffic signals are a relative newcomer to the collecting hobby.
Many of us in the traffic signal business have one or two “special pieces” that we’ve set aside for display – items that have been salvaged off the scrap pile and fixed up as a reminder of days gone by. But, there are an increasing number of people around the world, aided by the networking capabilities of the Internet, who collect traffic signals and related equipment. As they say, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.
Californian John Rietveld, known on the Internet as Signalfan, has been collecting signals for over twenty years and is one of the leaders of the hobby. Now with over eighty signal heads and a variety of both electromechanical and electronic controllers, he has an extensive collection of signals from both past and present. He has been able to profit from his collection by providing decorating services for conventions and events desiring a traffic control theme. In 1997, he established a web site describing his collection (www.signalfan.com), which has since expanded to another site that includes technical information on traffic signals and control equipment (www.trafficsignals.net).
In 2001, John started the Signalfan’s Club, an Internet group that allows collectors to exchange information and ideas about their hobbies. Now with over 100 members, the Signalfan’s Club is an active forum for signal equipment collectors, discussing refurbishing techniques, trading parts, and describing the latest intersections to be converted to LEDs. John says, “Signalfan's Club has really brought together people from all regions and areas of interest in traffic signals and control. It has been truly amazing to see the broad range of unlimited topics, and to learn about the methods used to preserve these highway sentinels of the past.”
Its interesting to read what these collectors, most of whom are not related to the traffic signal industry, have to say about types of signals, their operation, and their appearance. They often pick up on some of the subtleties of design, and make comments that show that they’re in tune with what we’ve been up to in the field. Many even quote the requirements of the MUTCD, which is now available on-line for all to read.
Jerry Bock, a Michigan-based collector, has established his own web site (www.trafficsignalmuseum.com) to display his collection of over 45 signals and the work effort needed to refinish and display these unique pieces. He has also devised a means of animating the site’s photographs to show the operation of some of the more unusual signals. Jerry enjoys his collection, noting, “I never set out to build a large collection, but as you get one piece and then another, you learn about the differences in the signals, the way they were made, and the different types of lenses, reflectors, and visors used. Seeing the differences often moves my interest on to the next signal variation that I find. I have a rule for myself that I have only broken once or twice, which is to not have any duplicates. Each piece should be different in some way -- whether large or small.”
What’s collectable and what’s not? The old, non-adjustable four-way signals made by Eagle, Crouse-Hinds, and Darley seem to be the most popular (and most expensive). On eBay, the Internet-based auction service, these four-way signals from the 1940s and 50s have been going for from $ 500 to over $ 1000, depending on condition. Also popular are the “art deco” Crouse-Hinds one-way signals, with rods and decorative end plates holding the signal sections together. Programmed visibility “3M” signals also attract a lot of interest because of their unique design.
More current models of signals that have made their way to the scrap pile are popular with the younger collectors who just want a light or two for their bedroom and are working on a limited budget. For just a few dollars more than the “twinkling” traffic lights available in toy stores, a teenager can have a real signal, obtained legitimately, in its place.
How do these collectors make their signals operate? The complexity of control systems range from simple switches or the inexpensive “flasher buttons” that are inserted within the lamp socket, to actual controllers salvaged from the scrap pile. Electromechanical controllers such as the Eagle EF-20 and the Crouse Hinds PCE-3000 are popular because of their ease of maintenance; some of the more adventuresome collectors are working with both NEMA and Type 170 controllers and terminal facilities. Advice on wiring and programming is frequently shared on the Club’s message board.
Also available are “controllers on a board”, capable of sequencing single-face signals (or even a two-phase intersection with pedestrian signals) in a realistic manner. While you’d never place one of these devices in the street, they do the trick for collectors. One company, Lights to Go, has even set up a web site to sell these devices to collectors, which can be seen at www.trafficlights.com.
Even some of the more mainstream traffic signal supply companies are getting into the act. OMJC Signal, Inc., of Waterloo, Iowa, has long been a source of old equipment to serious collectors, in addition to providing low-cost high-quality equipment for municipalities around the country. OMJC has recently targeted collectors by offering some of its more collectable signals on eBay, usually with a good response. Says sales representative Jim Bottema, “I enjoy being able to sell a piece of unmarketable equipment into the private market, even if it is for less than normal equipment would bring. It's really fun to know I kept a signal from being melted down to make cylinder heads and lawn furniture, and to make someone's day when they open the box and see their newest addition.”
The purchasing regulations for most governmental agencies make it difficult for them to sell individual signals to private citizens, and collectors often have to deal with contractors, junk and antique dealers, or eBay advertisers to purchase signals. However, some cities have established “City Stores” that sell memorabilia from the city to the public, often including signal equipment and occasionally even personalized street name signs.
So, the next time you take down a 1950’s era signal head, think twice before hauling it to the scrap pile! It may actually have a second life ahead of it.
IMSA Journal Feature Article