Cones: There’s more to them than you’d think


Flowers in road cones have come to symbolise the Canterbury earthquake recovery, but they’ve a longer history than that. HUGH DE LACY delves.

THEY’VE REPLACED YARD glasses at 21st birthday booze-ups, they’ve been made into lamps, cat-scratchers, vuvuzelas, hats and a Madonna brassiere, but none of these latter-day uses could have been applied to the original road cone: it was made of solid concrete.

On the eve of the first global war, and about the time Henry Ford changed the radiator on his fabulous Model T from brass to steel, another American industrialist was devising a way to deter cars from going where they weren’t supposed to.

It was 1914, and New Yorker Charles P Rademaker saw a need for a recognisable temporary road barrier, and what could offer firmer guidance to the proliferation of Model Ts than chunks of concrete arranged in a line?

Host-a-Brooch’ takes jewellery to the streets of Christchurch, inviting the public to (re)connect with the city through an urban wearable art adventure.
Host-a-Brooch’ takes jewellery to the streets of Christchurch, inviting the public to (re)connect with the city through an urban wearable art adventure.

There was no doubting the efficacy of Rademaker’s invention, but it had some obvious flaws: his cones were too heavy to transport or lay out in great numbers, and they did an awful lot of damage to any vehicle that happened to bump into them – which was probably why Rademaker never patented his invention, and it was left to someone else to develop the concept into the global role it plays today.

The next step along that path was the use of small wooden tripods, but they had the disadvantages of having to be assembled on-site, and they could do surprising damage to any vehicle that hit them.

The someone who completed the development Rademaker started was another American, Charles D Scanlon, who was a painter with the City of Los Angeles Street Painting Department, and in 1940 he got the idea of the modern lightweight cone that we know today.

Scanlon’s need was to keep vehicles off his newly-painted road markings, and his cone was made by sewing together strips of old tyres.

C_April_2015_Pg30_2He teamed up with a local tyre-shop proprietor, Rodney B Taylor, to make the first commercial batch but, in spite of Scanlon taking out a patent on their cones in 1943, they temporarily abandoned the business because they couldn’t find a secure enough supply of used tyres.

By then, though, the principles of the design had been firmly established: the cone had to be light enough to be easily transported, it had to be hollow so it was stackable, flexible so it wouldn’t damage vehicles if they hit or ran over them, heavy enough in the base that they wouldn’t be blown around in the wind, and fitted with feet so they wouldn’t smudge freshly painted areas on the asphalt.

Scanlon and Taylor scouted around for a new source of materials for their tyre-rubber cones, and in 1947 teamed up with Charles Terry, the owner of Interstate Rubber Products Corporation.

C_April_2015_Pg30_3Taylor set up a production line manufacturing the cones from rubber sheets that he placed inside a mould and heated under high pressure, and in 1949 the partners found success when Scanlon’s employer, the City of Los Angeles, started using the cones to delineate peak traffic lanes.

That prompted an approach from a company called Radiator Specialty, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, that wanted to market the cones in the eastern United States, but Scanlon and company declined.

Instead, they and Interstate Rubber set up the Safety Cone Traffic Corporation and began making cones with square bases.

Obviously not deterred by Interstate’s earlier declining to collaborate with her, Radiator Specialty owner Isador D Blumenthal acquired her own patent for a product strikingly similar to Scanlon’s.

Blumenthal called her product the Safe-T-Cone, and by 1951 traffic cones were being produced on both American coasts.

Cones were a little slower arriving across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom where David Morgan of Burford, Oxfordshire, claimed to have made the first experimental ones out of plastic in 1961.

Cones had been used three years earlier at the opening of the M6 motorway, substituting for the red lantern paraffin burners that had been used during the construction of the motorway’s Preston By-pass.

Morgan was employed by the British firm Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) at the time, and his first use of plastic for road cones coincided with the US Federal Highways Administration formally adopting a rubber version for America by specifying it in its Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

Christchurch’s Windsor Primary School’s post-earthquake road cone memorial.
Christchurch’s Windsor Primary School’s post-earthquake road cone memorial.

It was the MUTCD that standardised the cone for American usage by specifying a minimum height of 18 inches (70cm), rising by five inches (10cm) when speeds were higher or “wherever more conspicuous guidance is needed”, and up to 28 inches (0.71 metres) high on freeways.

For night use, the cones had to be “reflectorized or equipped with a lighting device”.

Whether plastic or rubber, road cones were projected globally by the MUTCD, prompting Englishman Morgan to do the very British thing of founding a collection of them.

He began in 1986 and his collection now totals over 500, with 137 of them being unique models.

No one seems to know when road cones made their first appearance in New Zealand, with inquiries at the New Zealand Transport Agency proving fruitless – the agency doesn’t appear to have its own manual on road cones, though specifications for their use are a routine component of contractors’ health and safety training, and their dimensions are covered by standards.

The standard New Zealand road cone weighs 4.5 kilograms but also comes in a slimmed-down version of the same weight on a smaller base, while a taller six kilogram cone is used where traffic is faster.

Finley Biss of Auckland supplier Adsafe, which imports between 5000 and 10,000 cones a year, estimates about 50,000 are imported annually, with some big companies like Fulton Hogan bringing in their own.

Most of New Zealand’s road cones used to come from the United States where they were flow-moulded, but lately China has been supplying increasing numbers of injection-moulded models which are softer and more durable.

No discussion of road markers in New Zealand would be complete without reference to what many New Zealanders believe – highly improbably – to have been this country’s unique contribution to traffic control: the 44-gallon drum.

Once one of those iconic use-it-for-anything materials like number eight wire, 44-gallon drums did sterling service on New Zealand roads for decades, and they’re still around, though no longer made of steel and no longer comprising packaging waste from the oil industry.

Lately the drum has morphed into an orange plastic tub – still 200 litres, or around 44 imperial gallons capacity – widely used in the UK and Europe, but replaced in the US and Australia by orange bollards 1.15 metres high with reflective sleeves and a heavy rubber base.

Pop-singer Madonna used two standard US road cones to construct the other-worldly brassiere she sported on one of her video clips, and a thousand other amateur inventors have applied them to innumerable unintended uses, but in the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes road cones have even revealed a poignant side as impromptu flower-studded memorials to the 185 people who lost their lives.

For more online.

One man’s collection. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bc9AxKEq-nk

19 weird cone pictures. http://www.freakingnews.com/Cone-Pictures–2487-0.asp.

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