Normally, we don’t think of cars as communication tools, but they absolutely are, even if their vocabulary is pretty limited. There’s really two separate devices on a car that are designed to communicate the driver’s intentions: the horn and the turn indicators. Today I want to talk about a tantalizing glimpse of what may be the finest early turn indicator, and complain about how little I know about it.
I should also mention that, sure, brake lights are communicating an action the driver is performing as well, and you can flash and Morse-code all you want with your headlights, but the turn indicators are the only device we have on a car to communicate a pure thought of your future intentions. You’re not currently turning, but it’s part of your grand scheme, and you want to share it with the world.
Turn signals have been around a long time, and we’ve covered their early history on several occasions, because, remember, Jalopnik is the globe’s finest turn-indicator news and culture-related organization, period. Recently, though, I saw a type of early signal I’d never seen before, and while I haven’t been able to find out enough about it to satisfy my desires, I want to share it with you.
I encountered this indicator in, of all places, a book my six-year-old checked out of the library. It’s a nicely illustrated book, lots of good information, and includes a whole two page spread about warning signals, which is mostly horns and this one fascinating device:
See that plastic or Bakelite or cellulose or whatever hand there, wearing that fetching glove? It’s part of a cable-operated turn signal system, and according to the book it’s from 1910, and the hand lights up.
Holy crap, that’s exactly the kind of thing that gets my indicators blinking, if you get me. Sadly, the book offered no more information than that: 1910, illuminated plastic hand, cable-operated.
It’s clear that this indicator was designed to mimic the standard hand signals that dominated inter-automobile-direction-changing-discourse in the years before standardized electromechanical turn indicators, and it seems like it would do a bang-up job as that, acting, essentially, as a prosthetic, remote-control hand for the driver.
To learn more, I started with a patent search, and found something close, but very much not it. Percy Seymour Douglas-Hamilton had patent number 912,831 from 1909 which describes a hand-signal-based automotive turn-indication system, but those hands are simply hand silhouettes designed to illuminate as needed.
A far cry from an actual, moving plastic hand. Even those little flip-up semaphore trafficators are closer, since they actually physically move; Percy Doug-Hammy’s thing is actually much closer to a modern taillight, just with a more evocative lens design.
This mechanical hand indicator isn’t necessarily the earliest electrical or mechanical turn signal system—Douglas-Hamilton’s was from 1907, remember—but it is certainly the most literal replacement for hand signaling.
Mechanical moving-arm trafficators and hand signals were concieved at least as early as 1914, so whatever this little fake hand thing is, it’s among the first of its kind. Based on the wrist mechanism, it looks like the hand can swivel at the wrist and wave back and forth, providing motions for all the major hand signals.
It think it was likely a British product; the book is from Doring Kindersley in London, and I’ve tried to reach out to the author to see if there’s any more information to be had. I suspect it’s from some automobilia collection in the UK.
So, if anyone has any clues about this wonderfully goofy mechanical hand, I’d love to know. In the meantime, I’ll see what else I can find out, and promise to update when I learn more.
This is about turn signals, people. This is serious goddamn business.