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The traffic signal system was invented nearly a century ago by Garrett Morgan

Goran Blazeski

Garrett Augustus Morgan was born on March 4, 1877,  in Paris, Kentucky. His parents, Sydney and Elizabeth Morgan, were former slaves. Morgan is known as one of America’s most successful African-American inventors.

Morgan didn’t even finish primary school and at the age of 14 moved to Cincinnati looking for a job. He lived there for four years and worked as a handyman of a rich white landowner. In 1895 he moved to Cleveland, where he would live for the rest of his life.

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan

The first job that he found in Cleveland was at the factory Roots and McBridge Company. He swept floors for just five dollars a week. While he worked at this factory, Morgan learned how to fix the oft-broken sewing machines. He improved the efficiency of the sewing machine by inventing the belt fastener.

A competitor of the Roots and McBridge Company hired Morgan as a machinist, where he was the company’s first black machinist. While he worked there he met Mary Hasek, a white girl whom he eventually married and had three sons with.

Newspaper photograph of Morgan's rescue in 1916

Newspaper photograph of Morgan’s rescue in 1916

In 1907 they opened their own store for sewing machines where Morgan repaired old and sold new sewing machines and his wife Mary sewed coats, dresses, suits, and children’s clothes.

While he was working in his store, he noticed that the fast-moving sewing needle scorched the materials. He used lubricating oils to polish the needle and reduce friction. After wiping his oily hands on a pony-fur cloth, he was surprised to find out that the fluid caused the fibers on the cloth to straighten. After testing the fluid on a dog’s fur and later on himself, he started selling the product under the name G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Cream. 

Patent drawing of Morgan's signal

Patent drawing of Morgan’s signal

Morgan developed a new invention in 1912. He called it Safety Hood, or better known as a Gas Mask. Morgan thought that this invention could be used by firemen who struggled with smoke inhalation. The Safety Hood would enable them to enter houses filled with smoke and to breathe freely without danger of suffocation. When an explosion occurred in a tunnel located about four miles of Cleveland’s shoreline, Morgan used the Safety Hood to rescue several men who were trapped in the tunnel. After this, the Cleveland citizens group and the International Association of Fire Engineers gave Morgan golden medals.

Another of Morgan’s inventions is the traffic signal system. He came up with the idea after witnessing a terrible traffic accident between an automobile and a horse and carriage. He designed a T-shaped pole with three positions: Go, Stop, and All-Stop. He patented this invention in 1923 and sold it to General Electric for $40,000.

Grave of Garrett A. Morgan

Grave of Garrett A. Morgan

Here is a story from us about another invention: Sir John Harington invented the flush toilet in the 16th century

Morgan died on July 27, 1963, at the age of 83. His inventions are still used today. The original prototype of the traffic signal is on display at Smithsonian’s American History Musem and the Safety Hood is on display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.