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View of police officer standing in traffic tower ; two automobiles circle the tower.Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

In our 315-year history, Detroit has seen and done a lot. Its reputation for innovation and trendsetting is well-deserved. The city and its people have been on the cutting edge of advancements in multiple sectors throughout Detroit’s history. From the first paved road to the first try-colored traffic light, check out what awesome firsts Detroit gave the world.

1. First mile of paved road in America

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With Detroit’s history in the automotive and manufacturing industry, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the city was a leader in the area of transportation. The city boasts the first mile of paved concrete road in the country. In 1909, the first mile of payment was laid between 6 and 7 Mile roads along M-1. At the time, the project cost $14,000 (around $2.17 million today).

With Detroit’s history in the automotive and manufacturing industry, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the city was a leader in the area of transportation. The city boasts the first stretch of paved concrete road in the country. In 1909, the first mile of payment was laid between 6 and 7 Mile roads along M-1. At the time, the project cost $14,000 (around $2.17 million today).

2. First urban freeway

Opening of the freeway in 1942. Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Opening of the freeway in 1942. Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Davison Avenue was a vital road for Detroiters in the 1930s and 40s, but because of the road’s limited narrow lanes, people would often have to sit in traffic. To fix the problem and speed traffic flow, the Highland Park City Council proposed a six-lane, limited-access highway to replace the current street. Plans were subsequently approved, and by November 1942, Davison Avenue became the first urban freeway in the nation.

3. First Tri-colored traffic light

View of police officer standing in traffic tower ; two automobiles circle the tower.Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.
An example of a tri-color traffic tower at Woodward and Grand Boulevard. Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Traffic lights had been used for several years in major cities like London and Paris before they made their way to Detroit. Shortly after their arrival, Detroit Police Officer William Potts took the design and modified it to better suit the police officer’s needs. During the early 1900s, traffic lights were controlled by police officers, who decided when to switch the lights from green to red.

Potts realized that the officers couldn’t all change their lights from green to red at the same time, so he came up with a third color, the amber that completes the modern traffic light we see today. The first tri-colored traffic light was installed at the intersection of Michigan and Woodward Avenues in 1920.

4. Home To First National African American Hero

Portrait of boxer Joe Louis. Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.
Portrait of boxer Joe Louis. Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Legendary boxer Joe Louis is widely regarded as the US’s first African-American to reach the status of a national hero. Though he was born in Lafayette, Alabama, Louis and his family moved to Detroit in 1926. It was in Detroit that Louis rose to fame as a boxer to contend with. He held the world heavyweight championship from 1937 to 1949, and he helped break color barrier in sports. Louis played an important role in integrating the golf. If you want to know more about the monument to Joe Louis downtown, click here.

5. First Pop-soul genre: Motown

Courtesy of motownmuseum.org
Courtesy of motownmuseum.org

Motown was the first music genre of its kind to integrate soul music with pop. Founder Berry Gordy, Jr. created Motown label in 1959 in Detroit. Well known artists with the label include Mary Wells, the Supremes, the Four Tops, and the Jackson 5. In the 1970s, Gordy moved his headquarters to Los Angeles, but Motown’s Detroit roots remained. Today, the Motown Museum keeps the memory of Motown’s glory days alive with an impressive collection of paraphernalia.

6. First radio station to broadcast regular news

1922 Detroit News Orchestra broadcast. The large round unit atop the stand on the far right is the pick-up microphone.
1922 Detroit News Orchestra broadcast. The large round unit atop the stand on the far right is the pick-up microphone.

The first radio station licensed by the federal government was in Detroit. Originally known as 8MK, it’s now WWJ-Radio. The station started broadcasting on August 20, 1920 with a small listening base of 30 homes. The Detroit News owned the station and put Detroit on the map as a radio pioneer.

7. First use of police dispatch radio

View of police station on Belle Isle; ivy-covered Shingle style building with turrets; man and small child stand in rounded arch entrance. Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.
View of police station on Belle Isle; ivy-covered Shingle style building with turrets; man and small child stand in rounded arch entrance. Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Detroit’s second radio first happened in 1928, when the Detroit Police Department sent the first successful one-way radio link between police headquarters and cruisers. Detroit Patrolman Kenneth Cox and engineering student Robert L. Batts built a stable radio receiver and antenna system. The Detroit Police were also the first department in the nation to dispatch patrol cars regularly by radio.

8. First use of city-wide phone numbers

View of telephone operators at switchboard on the 5th floor of the Union Guardian Building. Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.
View of telephone operators at switchboard on the 5th floor of the Union Guardian Building. Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Private telephone numbers had been around since the late 1800s, but there weren’t as popular as the party line. In a party line, multiple households share the same telephone line, and each household has its own ring pattern. Detroit changed the popularity of party lines by assigning individual phone numbers to households in the city. It was the first city to do so, and it paved the way for private phone numbers today.

9. First Van Gogh painting to enter a museum collection

Van_Gogh_Self-Portrait_with_Straw_Hat_1887-Detroit

The Detroit Institute of Art has an amazing collection, made even more awe-inspiring by the fact that it holds the first Van Gogh painting to enter a U.S. museum collection. Van Gogh’s Self Portrait is part of the DIA’s notable collection. The museum acquired the painting during the tenure of DIA Director William Valentiner, which lasted from 1924 to 1945.

10. First capital of Michigan

capitol_union_school

When Michigan became a territory in 1805, Detroit was the territory’s first (and only) capital. Later, when the territory became a state in 1837, Detroit remained the capital, become the State of Michigan’s first capital. In 1847, the state capital was moved to Lansing.