On 13 October 1961, the GDR’s chief traffic psychologist, Karl Peglau, presented his first design of the East German traffic light man to the traffic commission in East Berlin. The aim was to reduce the risk of accidents in the face of increasing road traffic. From a psychological point of view, the original traffic lights were to be supplemented by colour-shape signals to make pedestrians more aware of them. Above all, it was intended that children orientate themselves to the friendly little men. Peglau was probably a bit apprehensive about the bourgeois-capitalist symbol, namely the hat that the traffic light man wore on his head. But in the end, the red and green men passed the critical examination of the authorities. Only Peglau’s intended direction of travel was changed; the socialist traffic light man was to run from right to left.
The introduction of the traffic light man was delayed for several years. The figures were too large and did not fit into the pre-existing traffic light systems, so they then had to be scaled down and simplified. Several more years passed until the traffic light man was trialed on Unter den Linden in 1969, which proved to be a complete success. The signals were now suitable for colour-blind and visually impaired people, and children in particular could understand and respond to them better.
In the 1980s, the traffic light men even became TV stars. The DEFA director Friedrich Rochow developed 60 episodes of the award-winning children’s programme »Verkehrskompass« (Traffic Compass) with the cartoon characters Stiefelchen (Little Boots) and Kompass-Kalle, both based on the appearance of the traffic light men. The episodes were broadcast as part of the evening programme »Unser Sandmännchen«. Following a short intro with the two animated traffic light men, short films about road traffic showed children how to behave safely as pedestrians and in accordance with the traffic rules.
After reunification, the popular traffic wardens ran the risk of ending up in the rubbish; they were dismantled and replaced by their West German counterparts. However, the population protested against this, which led to the founding of the committee »Save the traffic lights!«. The aim was to preserve a piece of the GDR and a sense of home in the East. The »Ostalgie« (Eastern nostalgia) and marketing ideas of the product designer Markus Heckhausen eventually turned the traffic light man into a cult object and symbol for Berlin as a reunified capital. The East German traffic light man was and still is particularly popular with tourists. In 1995, Heckhausen came up with the idea of making lamps out of disused traffic lights. Soon after the product range grew. In 1997, Heckhausen finally founded AMPELMANN GmbH and has since been selling various products, such as T-shirts, key rings, mugs, backpacks and much more, under his registered trademark. In his »Buch vom Ampelmännchen« (Book on the Traffic Light Man), published in 1997, the East German traffic light woman appeared for the first time, designed by graphic artist Hans-Jürgen Ellenberger. Visually based on the eastern traffic light man, the traffic light woman has since been introduced in several German cities.
Since then, numerous new and unusual versions of the traffic light man have sprung up in many German cities. In Bremen, the town musicians regulate pedestrian traffic. In Mainz, the cartoon mascots or »Mainzelmännchen« from the German broadcaster ZDF shine, and in Hanover an angel and a moose adorn the traffic lights at Christmas time. International comparison also reveals exciting and curious variations of the traffic light man. Ampelmann Berlin has compiled a nice overview of the traffic light men in Germany and around the world.
Collage of East German traffic light men. Photos: ANKAWÜ
Editor's note: This blog post first appeared on 6 April 2016.