70+ Years in the Making: Inside The Incredible History of the Police Speed Gun

Did you know that speed guns used by the police today were once developed for use in the war effort? There is quite a fascinating story behind the evolution of these clever gadgets!

More importantly, the way technology has improved in the ninety years they’ve been around is enough to write a book on. Want to learn more? Let’s dig in.

How Do Speed Guns Work?

Speed guns, be they handheld or car-mounted, operate on radar technology. They are based on the same principle as an echo, except using different radio wave frequencies instead of sound.

When the gun is fired, it emits radio waves that collide with the speeding car and come back reflected. The reflected waves have a different frequency than the waves that were sent out. The difference between the frequencies of the two waves tells you the speed at which the car is traveling.

Over the years, speed guns have undergone a lot of change. Nowadays, they come equipped with things like microprocessors and serial control, which improve their safety and performance. But the question is, where did it all begin?

The History of Police Radar

Christian Doppler

The first step in the journey that led to the development of police radar happened in the mid-nineteenth century. Christian Andreas Doppler, a physicist, defined the concept that forms the basis of radar technology in 1842. In 1899, the first modern case of speeding landed a taxi-driver in jail.

Bicycle Chases

In 1899, a taxi driver by the name of Jacob German was arrested for speeding in New York City. He didn’t receive a ticket. Instead, he was jailed.

German was driving an electrobat, an odd-looking electric taxi that steered on its rear wheels and used lead-acid batteries for power. Bicycle Roundsman John Schuessler, the officer who caught him, literally gave chase to the taxi on a regular bicycle.

Shortly after, in 1901, Connecticut became the first state to impose an official speed limit. In 1904, Dayton Police issued the first speeding ticket to someone driving at twelve miles per hour.

The Speedometer

Ford Model T 1908

In 1908, the Ford Model T came out and took the automobile industry by storm. It was powered by gasoline and could run at 40-45 miles per hour.

Indian Motorcycle

These cars were faster and more affordable than anything before their time and to keep pace, police departments started investing in motorbikes. The progressive Yonkers Police had already purchased their first “Indian” motorcycle in 1906 for $217, which included a speedometer and could travel up to 50 MPH on flat ground.  

Harley Davidson Police Motorcycle 1

In 1908, Detroit PD became the first to buy a Harley-Davidson police motorcycle and set up a mobile patrol unit. The bike also came with a fully functioning speedometer, invented by Otto Schulze in 1902.

The Invention of Radar

In 1842, a physicist from Austria, the aforementioned Christian Doppler, described how the frequency of light and sound waves was affected by the speed of the source and the detector. This is famously called the Doppler Effect and forms the basis of any modern speed gun you’ll find today.

Next, in 1886, Heinrich Hertz focused on proving the 1864 predictions of mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, becoming the first person to transmit and receive radio waves. Hertz, a Professor of Physics, produced electromagnetic waves and measured their wavelength and velocity. He proved that their reflection and refraction matched that of light, therefore confirming that light waves are electromagnetic radiation obeying Maxwell’s equations.

Although he didn’t pursue commercial applications of his discovery, Hertz’s spark transmitters influenced the world: Guglielmo Marconi was granted a patent for wireless communications and, by 1901, had made a wireless transmission from Britain to Canada. In the early 1900s, ordinary people with technical minds were building their own spark transmitters in their houses (although most radio transmitters would soon use vacuum tubes and then transistors in place of sparks).

Then, in 1904, Christian Huelsmeyer patented the telemobiloscope, and so is often credited with the invention of radar. It was used by sailors to detect nearby ships in the fog, but it failed to determine how far they were and therefore doesn’t merit the full distinction. In April 1935, it was Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt who improved on this work and developed the first actual ‘radar’ device that could sense and locate objects. The device functioned using microwave pulses and was used in airplanes to determine nearby air traffic.

During the Second World War, several research organizations, including Birmingham University and the MIT Radiation Laboratory, worked on developing radar technologies to support the war efforts. The word ‘radar,’ however, wasn’t used until 1940, as a method to hide the word detection during communications.

The First Speed Gun

In the ‘40s, John Baker was an engineer at the Automatic Signal Company. During World War II, Automatic Signal switched gears from traffic control to defense work, and it fell upon Mr. Baker to work on its radar technology.

After the war, Baker applied for a patent for his traffic control device — the first speed gun — and in 1947, the town of Glastonbury in Connecticut became the first to adopt Mr. Baker’s technology. Back then, it was called the Electro-Matic Radar Speed Meter, consisting of two antennas that functioned as radar emitter and receiver.

Radar Speed Meter

By 1949, Garden City, New York, became the second town to implement the device for traffic control.

Early Radars

The earliest police radars would fit in the trunk of patrol cars and by the 1950s, the Electro-Matic Radar Speed Meter had been purchased by police departments across 12 states. By 1956, 48 states across the U.S. had bought 1,600 of these devices.

Most of the companies that manufactured police radars back in those days are no longer in business. However, Muniquip, founded by Bryce K. Brown in 1955 and renamed Decatur Electronics in 1966, is one of the oldest police radar companies still in business.

Kustom Signals, that’s us, was founded in 1965. We manufactured the world’s first digital display radar in 1969, which was called the TR-6.

(Image source: worthpoint.com)

Our company was also the first in the market to produce a moving radar and a handheld radar and, in 1990, we added our first laser speed gun. You can learn more about our full range of police radar devices by visiting our radar products page.

Radar Guns: Then and Now

Back in 1946, a single radar unit took two police officers to operate but, in 1972, the first handheld radar ‘gun’ could be operated by a single person.

The new digital radar guns are to analog versions what a smartphone is to an old phone booth. They have lower response times and can record at greater distances, making them more reliable in a court of law. Take a look at our Falcon K-Band radar gun as an example of a very low power emitting handheld device, yet with high performance results, that is now offering great value for money to many law enforcement departments.

There are also the new laser speed guns, which rely on light pulses instead of radio waves. Fun fact: Kustom Signals is one of the only four companies in North America to manufacture lidar guns, the latest of which is the ProLaser 4 and utilises the Following Too Close (FTC) mode:

And, moving away from handheld radar guns, law enforcement departments can now also take advantage of very small police car radar devices. One example from our range of products is the smallest mounted radar in today’s market, the Eagle 3. It’s advanced patented and patent-pending features include: Front and rear scanning mode that switches display to the target of interest; Wireless Speed Sensing (WSS) that eliminates VSS and controversial OBD II use; Advanced tuning fork test method with mandatory option that simplifies testing procedures; Recertification notification with optional lock out; DuraTrak tracking bars that improve target confidence; and QuikTrak one button target tracking with lock. Police radar has come a long way since 1947!

With almost half a century’s worth of history in the radar business, Kustom Signals has served law enforcement agencies across 96 countries with great pride. Please get in touch with us should you have any questions on how speed radar products could help your organisation.

Categories : Transport Technology

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