is the symbolic person shown on traffic light
Traffic lights, which may also be known as stoplights, traffic lamps, traffic signals, signal lights, robots or semaphore, are signalling devices positioned at road intersections, pedestrian crossings and other locations to control competing flows of traffic...
s at pedestrian crossing
A pedestrian crossing or crosswalk is a designated point on a road at which some means are employed to assist pedestrians wishing to cross. They are designed to keep pedestrians together where they can be seen by motorists, and where they can cross most safely across the flow of vehicular traffic...
s in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR - East Germany). Prior to the German reunification
German reunification was the process in 1990 in which the German Democratic Republic joined the Federal Republic of Germany , and when Berlin reunited into a single city, as provided by its then Grundgesetz constitution Article 23. The start of this process is commonly referred by Germans as die...
in 1990, the two German states had different forms for the Ampelmännchen, with a generic human figure in West Germany
West Germany is the common English, but not official, name for the Federal Republic of Germany or FRG in the period between its creation in May 1949 to German reunification on 3 October 1990....
, and a generally male figure wearing a hat in the east.
The Ampelmännchen is a beloved symbol in Eastern Germany, "enjoy[ing] the privileged status of being one of the few features of communist East Germany to have survived the end of the Iron Curtain with his popularity unscathed." After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Ampelmännchen acquired cult status and became a popular souvenir item in the tourism business.
Concept and designThe first traffic lights at pedestrian crossings were erected in the 1950s, and many countries developed different designs (which were eventually standardised). At that time, traffic lights were the same for cars, bicycles and pedestrians. The East Berlin
East Berlin was the name given to the eastern part of Berlin between 1949 and 1990. It consisted of the Soviet sector of Berlin that was established in 1945. The American, British and French sectors became West Berlin, a part strongly associated with West Germany but a free city...
Ampelmännchen was created in 1961 by traffic psychologist
Traffic psychology is a young, expanding and wide field in psychology. Whereas traffic psychology is primarily related to the study of the behavior of road users and the psychological processes underlying that behavior as well as to the relationship between behavior and accidents, transportation...
Karl Peglau was a German traffic psychologist who invented the iconic Ampelmännchen traffic symbols used in the former East Germany in 1961...
(1927–2009) as part of a proposal for a new traffic lights layout. Peglau criticised the fact that the standard colours of the traffic lights (red, yellow, green) did not provide for road users who were unable to differentiate between colours (10 percent of the total population); and that the lights themselves were too small and too weak when competing against luminous advertising and sunlight. Peglau proposed to retain the three colours but to introduce intuitive shapes for each coloured light. This idea received strong support from many sides, but Peglau's plans were doomed by the high costs involved in replacing existing traffic light infrastructure.
Unlike motor traffic, pedestrian traffic has no constraints for age or health (physical or mental), and therefore must allow for children, elderly people and the handicapped. Peglau therefore resorted to the realistic-concrete scheme of a little man that is comprehensible for everyone and appeals to archetypical shapes. The thick outstretched arms of the frontal-standing red man is associated with the function of a blocking barricade to signal "stop", while the side-facing green man with his wide-paced legs is associated with a dynamic arrow, signalling the permission to "go ahead". The yellow light was abandoned because of generally unhurried pedestrian traffic.
Peglau's secretary Anneliese Wegner drew the Ampelmännchen per his suggestions. The initial concept envisioned the Ampelmännchen to have fingers, but this idea was dropped for technical reasons of illumination. However, the man's "perky", "cheerful" and potentially "petit bourgeois" hat was retained to Peglau's surprise. The prototypes of the Ampelmännchen traffic lights were built at the VEB
The Volkseigener Betrieb was the legal form of industrial enterprise in East Germany...
-Leuchtenbau Berlin. Four decades later, Daniel Meuren of the West German Der Spiegel
Der Spiegel is a German weekly news magazine published in Hamburg. It is one of Europe's largest publications of its kind, with a weekly circulation of more than one million.-Overview:...
described the Ampelmännchen as uniting "beauty with efficiency, charm with utility, [and] sociability with fulfilment of duties". The Ampelmännchen reminded others of a childlike figure with big head and short legs, or a religious leader.
History in East GermanyThe Ampelmännchen was officially introduced on 13 October 1961 in Berlin, at which time the media attention and public interest focused on the new traffic lights, not the symbols. The first Ampelmännchen were produced as cheap decal pictures. Beginning in 1973, the Ampelmännchen traffic lights were produced at VEB Signaltechnik Wildenfels
Wildenfels is a municipality in Germany, Landkreis Zwickau in the administrative region of Chemnitz, the Free State of Saxony. It is situated 9 km southeast of Zwickau....
and privately owned artisan shops.
The Ampelmännchen proved so popular that parents and teachers initiated the symbol to become part of road safety education for children in the early 1980s. The East German Ministry of the Interior had the idea to bring the two traffic light figures to life and turn them into advisors. Die Ampelmännchen were introduced with much media publicity. They appeared in strip cartoons, also in situations without traffic lights. The red Ampelmännchen appeared in dangerous moments, and the green Ampelmännchen was an advisor. Together with the Junge Welt
junge Welt is a German daily newspaper published in Berlin. The jW describes itself as a left and Marxist newspaperIt was first published on 12 February 1947 in the Soviet Sector of Berlin. junge Welt became the official newspaper of the Central Council of the Free German Youth on 12 November 1947...
publishing company, games with the Ampelmännchen were developed. Ampelmännchen stories were developed for radio broadcasts. Partly animated Ampelmännchen stories with the name Stiefelchen und Kompaßkalle were broadcast once a month as part of the East German children's bedtime television programme Sandmännchen
Unser Sandmännchen, Das Sandmännchen, Abendgruß, Sandmann, Sandmännchen is a German children's bedtime television programme using stop motion animation...
, which had one of the highest viewing figures in East Germany. The animated Ampelmännchen stories raised international interest, and the Czech festival for road safety education films awarded Stiefelchen und Kompaßkalle the Special Award by the Jury and the Main Prize for Overall Accomplishments in 1984.
History after ReunificationFollowing the German unification in 1990, there were attempts to standardise all traffic signs to the West German forms. East German street signs and traffic signs were dismantled and replaced because of differing fonts in the former two German countries. The East German education programmes featuring the Ampelmännchen vanished. This led to calls to save the East German Ampelmännchen as a part of the East German culture. The first solidarity campaigns for the Ampelmännchen took place in Berlin in early 1995.
Markus Heckhausen, a graphic designer from the West German city of Tübingen
Tübingen is a traditional university town in central Baden-Württemberg, Germany. It is situated south of the state capital, Stuttgart, on a ridge between the Neckar and Ammer rivers.-Geography:...
and founder of Ampelmann GmbH in Berlin, had first noticed the Ampelmännchen during his visits to East Berlin in the 1980s. When he was looking for new design possibilities in 1995, he had the idea to collect dismantled Ampelmännchen and build lamps. But he had difficulty finding old Ampelmännchen and eventually contacted the former VEB Signaltechnik (now Signaltechnik Roßberg GmbH) for remainders. The company was still producing Ampelmännchen and liked Heckhausen's marketing ideas. The public embraced Heckhausen's first six lamp models. Local newspapers and the yellow press published full-page articles, followed by articles in national newspapers and designer magazines. The successful German daily soap Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten
Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten
Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten is a German television soap opera.In 1990, the first commercial channel in the Netherlands, RTL 4 had a spectacular ratings success with its soap Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden, a remake of the Australian soap-opera The Restless Years...
used the Ampelmännchen lamp in their coffeehouse set. Designer Karl Peglau explained the public reaction in 1997:
"It is presumably their special, almost indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth, when humans are comfortably touched by this traffic symbol figure and find a piece of honest historical identification, giving the Ampelmännchen the right to represent a positive aspect of a failed social order."
The Ampelmännchen became a virtual mascot
The term mascot – defined as a term for any person, animal, or object thought to bring luck – colloquially includes anything used to represent a group with a common public identity, such as a school, professional sports team, society, military unit, or brand name...
for the East German nostalgia movement, known as Ostalgie
Ostalgie is a German term referring to nostalgia for aspects of life in East Germany. It is derived from the German words Ost and Nostalgie ....
. The protests were successful, and the Ampelmännchen returned to pedestrian crossings, including all western districts of Berlin in 2005. Some western German cities such as Saarbrücken
Saarbrücken is the capital of the state of Saarland in Germany. The city is situated at the heart of a metropolitan area that borders on the west on Dillingen and to the north-east on Neunkirchen, where most of the people of the Saarland live....
-Early history:Between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago, "Heidelberg Man" died at nearby Mauer. His jaw bone was discovered in 1907; with scientific dating, his remains were determined to be the earliest evidence of human life in Europe. In the 5th century BC, a Celtic fortress of refuge and place of...
have since adopted the design for some intersections. Peter Becker, marshal of Saarbrücken, explained that lights of the East German Ampelmännchen have greater signal strength than West German traffic lights, and "in our experience people react better to the East German Ampelmännchen than the West German ones." In Heidelberg, however, a government department asked the city to stop the installation of more East German Ampelmännchen, citing standards in road traffic regulations.
Heckhausen continued to incorporate the Ampelmännchen design into products and had an assortment of over forty Ampelmännchen souvenir products in 2004, reportedly earning €2 million yearly. In the meantime, Joachim Roßberg claimed to make €50,000 for merchandise a year. Heckhausen appealed to a Leipzig
Leipzig Leipzig has always been a trade city, situated during the time of the Holy Roman Empire at the intersection of the Via Regia and Via Imperii, two important trade routes. At one time, Leipzig was one of the major European centres of learning and culture in fields such as music and publishing...
court in 2005 over the marketing rights, suing Roßberg for failing at making full use of his marketing rights; German legislature rules that if no use of marketing rights is made for five years, the rights can be cancelled. The court ruled in 2006 that Roßberg's right to use the Ampelmännchen as a marketing brand had largely lapsed and had passed back into the public domain. Roßberg only retained the right to use the symbol to market liqueur, and may no longer use the logo on beer and T-shirts. The court case was later seen by some as part of the cultural and political struggle between residents of the two parts of the reunified country, in which the underdog East generally loses.
Berlin started to modernize its traffic lights from using regular light bulbs to LED technology in early 2006, which promised better visibility and lower maintenance costs.
VariationsThere are three Ampelmännchen variations in modern-day Germany – the old East German version, the old West German version, and a pan-German Ampelmännchen that was introduced in 1992. Each German state holds the rights for which version to use. East Germans had changed the look of Ampelmännchen traffic lights as a joke since the early 1980s, but this turned into media-effective efforts to call attention to the vanishing East German Ampelmännchen in the 1990s. The Ampelmännchen on several traffic lights in Erfurt
Erfurt is the capital city of Thuringia and the main city nearest to the geographical centre of Germany, located 100 km SW of Leipzig, 150 km N of Nuremberg and 180 km SE of Hannover. Erfurt Airport can be reached by plane via Munich. It lies in the southern part of the Thuringian...
were changed through manipulation of the template, showing Ampelmännchen carrying backpacks or cameras. In 2004, Joachim Roßberg invented the female counterpart to the Ampelmännchen, the Ampelfrau, which was installed on some traffic lights in Zwickau
Zwickau in Germany, former seat of the government of the south-western region of the Free State of Saxony, belongs to an industrial and economical core region. Nowadays it is the capital city of the district of Zwickau...
Dresden is the capital city of the Free State of Saxony in Germany. It is situated in a valley on the River Elbe, near the Czech border. The Dresden conurbation is part of the Saxon Triangle metropolitan area....