December 28, 1938 – Death of an actress and inventor

Florence Lawrence, AKA The Biograph Girl, often regarded as the first movie star, took her own life on this day in 1938 after consuming poison. Lawrence was much more than an actress, she was a lover of the automobile and an inventor. She is credited with creating the first mechanical turn signals and brake signals. She rigged up a simple device that allowed drivers to press a button in order to raise a flag on the back bumper of their car to indicate which was they were going to turn. She followed this up with a “stop” signal that would rise when the driver compressed the brake pedal. She failed to patent either of these inventions, or the electric windshield wipers she would come up with a few years later, and never received any sort of compensation or credit for her inventions at the time. She eventually lost most of the small fortune she did build from her acting career during the Great Depression and committed suicide nearly penniless and while suffering from what a rare, incurable and painful bone marrow disease. Florence Lawrence sits behind the wheel of a Lozier open touring car with 1912 Pennsylvania license plates. [photo credit: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research]

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