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Turn and Stop Signals

Lawrence It wasn’t an engineer, an auto mechanic, or a scientist who came up with two of the most indispensable early automobile innovations, now included on every car today. Rather, it was a Hollywood starlet, Florence Lawrence, who created the first turn indicator as well as the full-stop signal activated by applying the footbrake.

Lawrence was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on January 2, 1886, as Florence Annie Bridgwood. Her mother, a vaudeville actress, had changed her name from Charlotte Bridgwood to Lotta Lawrence and later changed her daughter’s surname, too, as the pair traveled together on the showbiz circuit and Florence became known as “Baby Flo, The Child Wonder Whistler.”

Lawrence got her first film part in 1907 in “Daniel Boone” and went on to make more than 250 films, at first, most of them short, small-time productions known as “one-reelers,” which were typically shot in one week or less. At this time, credits were not terribly important, and Lawrence worked anonymously. She became widely known for her face, however, simply as “The Biograph Girl” for the name of the film studio she typically worked for.

That is, until Carl Laemmle, who would go on to found Universal Pictures, formed his own film house in 1910, the IMP Company. He convinced Lawrence to become the studio’s leading actress, luring her in through money and publicity stunts. This helped spur the movie star system that we know so well today. For this reason, Lawrence is often called the first real “movie star.”

Also during this period, automobiles were just becoming widely available, and Lawrence, having the funds to be able to buy one of these very expensive machines, was among the fortunate few to own her own car as early as 1913.

She was a truly passionate automobile enthusiast who believed cars responded best to proper care and communication, and she had many ideas for improving them. She began inventing a number of improvements and accessories. The first of these was the “auto signaling arm,” which is known as the first version of a turn signal. Her variation was an arm placed on the back of the car’s fender that could be activated to rise or lower with the push of buttons located by the driver’s seat for indicating the driver’s intention to turn left or right. Another feature was a sign for indicating “full stop,” which was raised or lowered at the car’s rear simply by pressing on the footbrake.

Lawrence never patented her inventions, but improved versions were soon seen all over and by 1939, the Buick made electrical turn signals standard in all its cars. Her mother, however, did patent a system of electrical windshield wipers in 1917. Neither made any money off these. Meanwhile, Lawrence was replaced at IMP by Mary Pickford, and she left to work for Lubin studios. She and husband Harry Solter started their own studio, Victor Film Company, in 1912, and sold it to Universal Pictures in 1913.

By 1915, after suffering injury in a fire, and then facing the death of her husband in 1920, Lawrence began to drop out of the film scene and found herself in less and less demand. She married again and lost her second husband in 1930; a third marriage lasted less than one year. Tragically, Lawrence committed suicide in 1938 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

[May 2005]

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