Who Invented the Traffic Cone?
Since its inception in the 1940's, the traffic cone quickly gained fame around the world (not an easy feat in the ages before the internet and social media). Known as a pylon, witches’ hat, road cone, safety cone, or channeling device, everybody became familiar with the orange cone and the message of caution it carries. From towns to cities in Asia and Europe to the Americas, the cone became a common sight on the road. In fact, on a list of America’s most iconic inventions, the ever-popular traffic cone is never far from the top. But who invented it, anyway?
The story starts with Charles Scanlon, a street painter in Los Angeles. In 1940, Charles was a road worker and a local shop owner who was dissatisfied with the wooden road markers in use at the time. The markers were inconvenient and often run over and demolished. He needed a better way to keep cars from driving on fresh paint and set out to design a ballasted, hollow cone-shaped marker by sewing used tire skins together.
A few tweaks and three years later, Scanlon patented his invention as a bottom-heavy safety marker that could withstand the wind without toppling over. It had a top hole that allowed for easy stacking and feet that kept it from touching fresh paint. And it was made from a lightweight resilient material that wouldn’t break or cause damage to cars if it was hit. The original traffic cone was born.
In 1947, the Interstate Rubber Products Corporation began manufacturing traffic cones as we know them by heating rubber sheets in high-pressure molds. Los Angeles began to rely on cones to separate and merge lanes, mark pedestrian paths, indicate potholes, and block-off roadside work zones. Other American cities followed and soon, visiting foreigners brought the idea home.
The traffic cone is now a required tool for traffic management and roadside work and has made its way into other settings where it serves as a cautionary reminder keeping people safe. The majority of modern traffic cones are produced in China and Taiwan using thermoplastics, rubber, or recycled PVC making them easy to transport and store. They feature an added reflective collar to improve visibility in low light but all in all, their design remains the same.
To this day, the cone’s simplicity, effectiveness, and durability never dwindle. As to what might come next, another inventor is heralding an eco-friendly version of the cone. This new cone is the same size, shape, and color but made from paper that is very dense and can withstand the elements. Once its job is done, it can be recycled. Look for this and other eco-friendly adaptations to keep the traffic cone alive for years to come.