Florence Lawrence.

December 28, 1938 – Death of an actress and auto parts inventor

The first movie star, Florence Lawrence, AKA The Biograph Girl, took her own life on this day in 1938. What does this have to do with automotive history? Between filming more than 250 movies, the car lover invented multiple car systems taken for granted today.

Though she received no patent at the time, Lawrence is now credited with creating the first mechanical turn signals and brake signals. For the turn system, she rigged up a simple device that allowed drivers to press a button that rose a flag on the back bumper of their car to indicate an impending 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.

Florence Lawrence
Above: Florence Lawrence. Top: 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]

Though she received no credit nor compensation for her automotive endeavors, she made a fine living as an actress. Unfortunately she eventually lost most of her small fortune during the Great Depression. Furthermore she suffered from a rare, incurable and painful bone marrow disease. Her condition pushed her to suicide, taking her own life via poison on this day in 1938.

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