An inventor and businessman from Paris, Kentucky, Garrett Morgan was the son of former slaves who spent his early childhood attending school and working on the family farm with his brothers and sisters. While still a teenager, Morgan left his family home and moved to north to Cincinnati, in search of opportunity. While Morgan’s formal education never took him beyond elementary school, he was determined to improve himself and hired a private tutor in English grammar. In 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he went to work as a sewing machine repair man for a clothing manufacturer. News of his proficiency for fixing things and experimenting traveled fast and led to numerous job offers from various manufacturing firms in the Cleveland area.
In 1907, the inventor opened his own sewing equipment and repair shop. It was the first of several businesses Morgan would establish. In 1909, he expanded the enterprise to include a tailoring shop that employed 32 employees. During this time, Morgan invented a zigzag stitching attachment for manually operated sewing machine and his company turned out coats, suits and dresses, all sewn with equipment that Garrett Morgan himself had made.
In 1914, Morgan developed an invention he deemed the Morgan Safety Hood and Smoke Protector and was awarded a patent for this device. A precursor to the modern gas mask, this respiratory protector gained national attention when Morgan used the mask to rescue 32 men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel 250 feet beneath Lake Erie. Morgan and a team of volunteers donned these new “gas masks” and went to the rescue, breathing freely as they navigated through smoke filled passageways. After the rescue, Morgan’s company received requests from fire departments around the country who wished to purchase the new masks. The Morgan gas mask was later refined for use by U.S. Army during World War I and later won a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety, and another gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
As word of Garrett Morgan’s lifesaving inventions spread across North America and England, demand for these products grew. He was frequently invited to conventions and public exhibitions to demonstrate how his inventions worked.
In 1920, Garrett Morgan moved into the newspaper business when he established the Cleveland Call. As the years went on, he became a prosperous and widely respected business man, and he was able to purchase a home and an automobile. Indeed it was Morgan’s experience while driving along the streets of Cleveland that inspired him to invent an improvement to traffic signals.
The first American-made automobiles were introduced to U.S. consumers shortly before the turn of the century. The Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 and with it American consumers began to discover the adventures of the open road. In the early years of the 20th century it was not uncommon for bicycles, animal-powered wagons, and new gasoline-powered motor vehicles to share the same streets and roadways with pedestrians, thus accidents were frequent and commonplace. After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Garrett Morgan took his turn at inventing a traffic signal.
While other inventors had experimented with, marketed, and even patented traffic signals, Morgan was one of the first to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for an inexpensive to produce model. The patent was granted on November 20, 1923. Garrett Morgan also had his invention patented in Great Britain and Canada.
Garrett Morgan stated in his patent for the traffic signal, “This invention relates to traffic signals, and particularly to those which are adapted to be positioned adjacent the intersection of two or more streets and are manually operable for directing the flow of traffic… In addition, my invention contemplates the provision of a signal which may be readily and cheaply manufactured.”
The Morgan traffic signal was a T-shaped pole unit that featured three positions: Stop, Go and an all-directional stop position. This “third position” halted traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross streets more safely. Morgan’s hand-cranked semaphore traffic management device was in use throughout North America until all manual traffic signals were replaced by the automatic red, yellow, and green-light traffic signals currently used around the world. The inventor sold the rights to his traffic signal to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000.
Garrett Morgan was constantly experimenting to develop new concepts. Though the traffic signal came at the height of his career and became one of his most renowned inventions, it was just one of several innovations he developed, manufactured, and sold over the years.
Garrett Morgan died on August 27, 1963, at the age of 86. His life was long and full, and his creative energies have given us a marvelous and lasting legacy.