A look at Prague’s first traffic cops, automatic semaphores, a century on

Photo: archive of Prague Police Museum

When the first set of automatic traffic lights appeared on the streets of Prague ninety years ago, they were not well received. In fact, these electronic ‘semaphores’ – so ubiquitous today – led to documented cases of road rage, as well as complaints from pedestrians.

Photo: archive of Police Museum in Prague
In the aftermath of the First World War, newly independent Czechoslovakia was busy re-establishing itself as an industrial regional powerhouse. Then, as now, the streets of Prague were bustling with traffic of all kinds.

But it wasn’t until one autumn morning in 1919 that Prague’s first traffic guards took to the streets to try to impose some order – ensuring trams got right of way, and that crossroads were kept clear of cars and the odd horse-drawn carriage.

Marcela Machutová, who recently stepped down as head of the Police Museum in Prague after decades in the post, described the scene at the base of Wenceslas Square, on Na Příkopech Street.

“It was a harsh morning on 2 September 1919. Crowds of bewildered Praguers watched this man wearing a unfamiliar black uniform and helmet, sporting a silver badge, as he instructed pedestrians, riders and drivers how to behave on the road.”

“He was using a ‘pendrek’ (baton) to direct traffic. Praguers were staring at him and found it all strange. They began calling him ‘pendrek’, and to this day, traffic guards are called that.”

We can imagine that the traffic guards in their spiffy new uniforms got called a few other things in those early days: Pedestrians, cyclists, coachmen and commuters were used to navigating the streets as they saw fit.

Over time, of course, the pendrek became an accepted fixture on busy Prague streets. They later also manually operated the Czech capital’s first traffic signal lights – called semaphores (semafory). The first was put into operation in December 1927, not on Wenceslas Square, but at the intersection of Hybernská, Dlážděná and Havlíčková streets.

Marcela Machutová again:

“Then, a traffic survey was carried out. It was found about 90,000 people passed through Wenceslas Square every day. And almost 19,000 cars passed through the junction of Vodičkova and Jindřišská streets at peak hours.”

“Another bottleneck was identified at Můstek, where about 1,000 fewer cars were passing through. Other busy crossroads was at the Powder Tower, and of course at Anděl and Karlovo náměstí. About 8,000 cars drove through there.

Photo: archive of Police Museum in Prague
“All this was related to the reconstruction of Wenceslas Square in 1928. The trams had always run on the pavements, on the sides. That year, the tracks were moved to the centre of the square, onto an elevated platform.”

Automatic traffic lights soon appeared at points on and nearby Wenceslas Square. Generally, Marcela Machutová says, people were as opposed to them as they had been to taking orders from the first traffic cops, back in 1919, “But they got used to it.”

The next big shake-up came when Germany imposed right-hand drive on occupied Czechoslovakia. The Prague traffic signal system was also altered. Four-way lights suspended wires above crossroads were replaced by one-way devices on pillars, often in combination with a pedestrian crossing signal.

Today, there are close to 700 traffic lights in the Czech capital, twice as many as in 1989. Intelligent traffic lights, which react to actual conditions, have also appeared in recent years. These have proved a welcome innovation for commuters and pedestrians alike.