History Book

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It, the WORLD Radio History Book. Today, Winston Churchill is recognized for his literary legacy. Plus, in 1984, a special White House Christmas scene is reinstated.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: But first, 150 years ago, London city planners install a street device that eventually changes urban landscapes all around the world. Here’s Paul Butler.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: We begin today with December 10th, 1868. The world’s first traffic signal is installed outside the Westminster Palace in London.

BBC: Gas powered, it used signals to direct horse drawn carriages outside parliament. Unfortunately, it exploded, injuring a police officer, and was scrapped.

Audio from a BBC News report on the 150th anniversary of the traffic light.

Before automated traffic signals, police manually controlled the flow of traffic at busy intersections. It was often risky work with large horses, overloaded carts, and unpredictable pedestrians clogging the road.

The “street semaphore” was the first attempt to control traffic mechanicallythough it wasn’t automatic, as it required a police operator. The device looked a lot like traditional railway signals, other than it stood 22 feet tall. The arms extended out to direct drivers when to “stop.” If lowered to 45 degrees, they could proceed with “Caution.” The device was illuminated at night by red and green gas lamps.

Many semaphore designs popped up all around the world.

SEEING GREEN FILM: With safety first and always in their minds, the traffic bureaus throughout the country everywhere have given motorists the guidance of signal lights…

New York tested “Walk/Don’t Walk signs” in 1918, and by the 1920’s, most cities replaced semaphore systems with colored electric lights. Cosmetically, traffic signals have changed very little since.

SEEING GREEN FILM: The safest way to drive, and the best way to make time is to gear your driving in with the lights, seeing green all the way.

Next, December 10th, 1953:

BRITISH NEWSREEL AUDIO: This was the scene outside the concert hall in Stockholm where the Nobel Festival prize giving was about to be held…

65 years ago this week, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill receives the Nobel Prize in literature for his History of the Second World War.

BRITISH NEWSREEL AUDIO: One of the many Nobel prize winners was unavoidably absent but Lady Churchill, accompanied by her daughter Mrs. Solms, had come to receive it for Mr. Winston…

As the King of Sweden hands Mrs. Churchill a book, a medal, and a note for 12-thousand pounds, a Nobel Committee representative praises Churchill for his quote—“mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”

BRITISH NEWSREEL AUDIO: The literary prize is intended to cast luster upon the author, but here, it is the author that gives luster to the prize…

And finally, December 11th, 1984: The White House publicly displays a traditional nativity scene for the first time since courts ordered it removed 11 years earlier.

REAGAN: Each December we celebrate a prince, the Prince of Peace. Born in utter poverty. And the fact of His birth, makes hearts turn warmest during the coldest time of the year…

President Ronald Reagan from the lighting of the Christmas tree celebration as broadcast on CNN.

The 20-piece manger scene was first displayed in 1954. The figures are nearly life sized, depicting two angels, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus. The couple is flanked by the three Wise Men, a kneeling shepherd and sheep, plus a camel, a standing boy, a donkey and a cow.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan stand nearby as they address the nation and light the tree.

REAGAN: So now I light the nation’s Christmas tree. May its thousand lights illuminate our best resolves and cast a great glow on our affection for each other, and our thanks for each other, and our love. And you know what, I’ve talked myself into the Christmas Spirit, I’m going to give a gift right now. I’m not going to light the tree, I’m going to let Nancy do it. [OFF MIC] Where’s the button? I don’t know where it is. No, where do we do it?


That’s this week’s WORLD Radio History Book, I’m Paul Butler.

(Photo/Getty Images)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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