What's the origin of "Portland Orange"?
October 1, 2019 12:12 PM   Subscribe

I learned this morning that traffic signal engineering specifications for DON'T WALK crosswalk signals in the US require that "Portland Orange" be the color used. This appears to go back to at least the mid-1950s as a specification, but I'm having trouble finding out (a) when exactly that specification came into being and more to the point (b) what the etymology of the name "Portland Orange" is in the first place!

There's a Wikipedia page for Portland Orange, which mentions the Institute of Traffic Engineers as well as the (US) Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices; I've been able to find mentions of Portland Orange in traffic specs tied to both of those, but no discussion specifically of the naming or selection of that particular color.

Presumably the color had that name before the ITE or MUTCD started referencing it by name, but I haven't been able to find any info on that so far.

The wikipedia entry cites a Google Books result for the 1959 proceedings of the ITE; I've found similar results searching Books but nothing reliably earlier (though it does serve up a couple results with apparently bad metadata suggesting antedates to 1952 and even 1930, where the content inside the result appears to be late 1950s after all).

So what's the story? Where can I look next? How does one research the narrow question of the origin of names of application-specific, presumably 20th century colors?
posted by cortex to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Also noting that in some more contemporary sources the term "pedestrian orange" is sometimes used, seemingly interchangably, though the impression I'm getting so far there is that this is just a more recent development and not something that tracks back to the origin of the signal + color choice.
posted by cortex at 12:30 PM on October 1, 2019


If you're up for an intralibrary loan and trip to your library, you might want to see if Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, by Brent Berlin & Paul Kay or Color Standards and Color Nomenclature, by Robert Ridgway, have answers.
posted by WCityMike at 12:52 PM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


This 1959 newspaper article implies it is called that because the idea of using an orange light came from Portland. It's a very jokey article though so that may not be true. (I'm not sure if you can download the article without a newspapers.com subscription)
posted by interplanetjanet at 1:01 PM on October 1, 2019


I found the following snippet of text in "Proceedings of the American Association of State Highway Officials", 1959 (crappy google books link):

Your speaker's contribution to the art was development of the so- called ''Portland Orange" wait lens, which originated in evening hours spent at the shop of a church window designer in Portland, Oregon, when I was working as an ...

Still chasing down *who* that speaker is!
posted by potch at 1:43 PM on October 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


From jimmying the locks in Google Books a bit (it helps that there are two different digitized versions of the Proceedings), I can at least finish that sentence: "as an assistant to Veteran Traffic Engineer Fred Fowler of that city."

From further jimmying to locate the table of contents, I believe the author is one "George W. Howie, Director of Public Utilities and Traffic, Cincinnati, Ohio," and the text is "Summary of Proposed Changes in Traffic Signal Selection Manual," which starts on page 193.

This profile attached to Mr. Howie's 1966 Congressional testimony indicates that he worked in Portland as an assistant traffic engineer for five years starting in 1943.

The exact nature of Mr. Howie's extracurricular church-window-design-related activities, and how those activities led to Portland Orange, remains unclear.
posted by shenderson at 2:17 PM on October 1, 2019 [8 favorites]


The exact nature of Mr. Howie's extracurricular church-window-design-related activities, and how those activities led to Portland Orange, remains unclear.

Complete, utter speculation follows: I've seen shades of reddish-orange in stained glass church windows that really resemble the reddish-orange of Portland Orange.
posted by WCityMike at 11:38 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


I think that's likely to be it. FWIW, after the sentence

Your speaker's contribution to the art was development of the so-called ''Portland Orange" wait lens, which originated in evening hours spent at the shop of a church window designer in Portland, Oregon, when I was working as an assistant to Veteran Traffic Engineer Fred Fowler of that city.

a new paragraph begins, apparently expounding on the color's purpose:

One of our objectives in those days was to achieve a color contrast with vehicular signals. This seems of less importance today when contrast of shape is provided by the standards for the units, and as the principle of complete physical separation of vehicular signal assemblies from the pedestrian signal

[here endeth page 198 of the original; I am unable to reach page 199]

From this I would make an uneducated guess that what Assistant Traffic Engineer Howie noticed at the window shop was that this particular shade of orange made a particularly clear visual contrast with red (e.g. red and orange glass pieces representing different objects could be placed next to each other without visual confusion), thus rendering it suitable for the purpose of providing a bright pedestrian signal that could be distinguished from the vehicular signal even under very poor-visibility conditions, and even when the pedestrian and vehicle signals were part of a single assembly.

If someone is truly motivated to get to the bottom of this, a visit to one of the physical libraries that ostensibly hold copies of the Proceedings might clear some things up. (It's on Hathi but only in the useless search-only format.)
posted by shenderson at 1:45 PM on October 3, 2019


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