FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Nation’s first movie star invented key safety features

Brake lights are used daily. (Photo: Chris Seward/

International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women, began on March 8, 1911. In addition, Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society; it has been observed annually in March in the United States since 1987.

To help celebrate Women’s History Month, FreightWaves Classics will continue to profile a number of women who made contributions to transportation during the month of March.

In a recent FreightWaves Classics article, the two women who invented windshield wipers were profiled. Charlotte Bridgwood was one of those women. She was also the mother of Florence Lawrence, who many consider to be… 

“America’s first movie star”

Florence Lawrence. (Photo:
Florence Lawrence. (Photo:

When the film industry was just beginning to make “silent pictures,” actors were paid poorly and were generally uncredited in the films. In fact, movie producers and the early movie studios sought to ensure that the actors were not credited, so that they could not use their fame and name recognition to demand higher wages. 

Florence (Bridgwood) Lawrence made her stage debut at the age of six. In 1906 Lawrence was hired by Thomas Edison’s movie studio to play Daniel Boone’s daughter, which was her first role in the movies. With her stage background, she made the transition to silent movies easily. In her first year (at the age of 16), she appeared in almost 40 films for Vitagraph Studios. In 1908 she went to work for D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studios. 

Florence Lawrence. 
Florence Lawrence.

Lawrence was popular with the nation’s early moviegoers and was considered a talented and attractive actress. However, her name was still not known, and she became known as “the Biograph girl.” As the Biograph Girl, she helped to popularize movies, but was paid only $25 a week (about $900 per week now, so not a great deal, but more than the vast majority of women earned at that time).

Lawrence’s career with D.W. Griffith ended when she sought to find additional acting jobs. Griffith fired her, but she was hired by Carl Laemmle of the Independent Motion Picture Co. (IMP). While Griffith had treated Lawrence as an interchangeable actor, Laemmle thought she was the best actress of her generation. He thought up a scheme to convince the world that she was dead; he leaked rumors that the Biograph Girl had died in a car crash. 

Once he had spread the rumor nationwide, Laemmle then purchased advertising space in newspapers for “We Nail a Lie,” which corrected the rumor, publicized Lawrence’s name, and announced that Lawrence was going to star in Laemmle’s new movie. He then scheduled a public appearance for Lawrence in St. Louis; fans rushed to see her. Because of Laemmle’s gimmicks, Florence Lawrence became famous overnight, and she is therefore recognized as the world’s first movie star.

Lawrence’s contributions to the automotive/trucking industries

Although Lawrence’s rise to fame as a movie star is interesting, that is not the focus of this article. Similar to her mother’s invention of electric windshield wipers, Lawrence invented two safety-related devices that are still used on vehicles today.

Because of her fame as an actress, Lawrence was finally very well-paid. She bought an automobile – a rarity at that time, when cars were still luxury items (and the vast majority of owners/drivers were men). She enjoyed driving and learning all she could about how automobiles worked. “A car to me is something that is almost human,” she said. “[It is] something that responds to kindness and understanding and care, just as people do.” She also had many ideas about how to improve cars and the driving experience.

Florence Lawrence behind the wheel. (Photo:
Florence Lawrence behind the wheel. (Photo:

That led Lawrence to invent not one, but two of the most important vehicle signaling features in 1914/15 – what today’s drivers know as the turn signal and brake lights. 

Her first credited invention was “auto-signaling arms” – the predecessors of turn signals. Although the number of cars/trucks on city streets was much lower in 1914 than today, those streets were dangerous – drivers did not know when another driver wanted to turn, or in which direction. Although some people used hand signals by putting their arms out of the vehicle, not all drivers followed that “rule.” 

Lawrence’s mechanical signaling arm worked by pushing a button. This caused flags on the car’s rear bumper to raise or lower, signaling to other drivers the direction in which a car was going to turn. Her auto-signaling arm was the world’s first mechanical turn signal. 

Class 8 trucks have brake lights and turn signals; many also have an array of safety lights as well. (Photo:
Class 8 trucks have brake lights and turn signals; many also have an array of safety lights as well. (Photo:

She followed up on her turn signals shortly thereafter by creating a “full stop” indicator (which evolved into brake lights). Lawrence’s braking indicator was a “STOP” flap on the rear of the car that was actuated when the brake pedal was applied.  

“I have invented an ‘auto-signaling arm,’ which, when placed on the back of the fender, can be raised or lowered by electrical push buttons,” she told The Green Book magazine. “The one indicating ‘stop’ works automatically whenever the foot brake is pressed.”

When asked why she never patented her inventions, Lawrence explained that the inventions were simply for the good of all mankind. However, that did not stop others from quickly patenting her ideas and profiting from them. 

No known photos of Lawrence's turn signals or stop sign exist. However, this is Oscar J. Simler's hand-built turn signal, which was patented in 1929  – 15 years after Lawrence's inventions. (Photo: National Museum of American History)
No known photos of Lawrence’s turn signals or stop sign exist. However, this is Oscar J. Simler’s hand-built turn signal, which was patented in 1929 – 15 years after Lawrence’s inventions. (Photo: National Museum of American History)


Although the technology works differently now, turn signals and brake lights follow Lawrence’s basic ideas. Both of her inventions were later adapted by Buick (in 1939), and then spread slowly across the automotive industry. For decades, the adaptations of Lawrence’s inventions have been standard equipment on all motorized vehicles.  

Lawrence acted in various roles in nearly 250 silent movies and was the industry’s first star. However, other than film historians, most movie lovers don’t know who she was. In addition, because she chose not to patent her inventions, Lawrence’s role in developing turn signals and brake lights is also almost universally unknown. She received no credit for – or profit from – either invention.

The photos of Florence Lawrence at the peak of her film career show a beautiful young woman. Unfortunately, later in life, she struggled against depression, heartbreak and disease. 

Brake and turn signal lights on the back of this trailer. (Photo:
Brake and turn signal lights on the back of this trailer. (Photo:

Like many wealthy people, Lawrence lost her fortune in the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression. As the nation sunk deeper into the Depression, Lawrence’s fame and fortune never returned.

She developed a mysterious disease – speculated to have been myelofibrosis, an agonizing condition wherein bone marrow is slowly taken over by collagen fibers. Whatever her ailment was, doctors diagnosed it as incurable. It became so painful that Lawrence was forced to stop working. 

The first nation’s first movie star faced a lifetime of pain and depression from an incurable disease. Instead, Lawrence poisoned herself and died on December 28th, 1938.

Florence Lawrence's burial plot. (Photo:
Florence Lawrence’s burial plot. (Photo:

The next time you use your turn signal or depress your brake pedal, think for just a second about Florence Lawrence… and what she contributed to vehicle safety.

Source: freightwaves - FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Nation’s first movie star invented key safety features
Editor: Scott Mall, Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics