Garrett Augustus Morgan was an African-American businessman and inventor whose curiosity and innovation led to the development of many useful and helpful products. A practical man of humble beginnings, Morgan devoted his life to creating things that made the lives of other people safer and more convenient.
Among his inventions was an early traffic signal that greatly improved safety on America’s streets and roadways. Indeed, Morgan’s technology was the basis for modern traffic signal systems and was an early example of what we know today as Intelligent Transportation Systems.
The Inventor’s Early Life – The son of former slaves, Garrett A. Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky on March 4, 1877. His early childhood was spent attending school and working on the family farm with his brothers and sisters. While still a teenager, he left Kentucky and moved north to Cincinnati, Ohio in search of opportunity.
Although Morgan’s formal education never took him beyond elementary school, he hired a tutor while living in Cincinnati and continued his studies 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 travelled fast and led to numerous job offers from various manufacturing firms in the Cleveland area.
In 1907, Morgan opened his own sewing equipment and repair shop. It was the first of several businesses he would establish. In 1909, he expanded the enterprise to include a tailoring shop that employed 32 employees. The new company turned out coats, suits and dresses, all sewn with equipment that Morgan himself had made.
In 1920 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 led to the invention of the nation’s first patented traffic signal.
The Garrett Morgan Traffic Signal – 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. Accidents were frequent. After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan was convinced that something should be done to improve traffic safety.
While other inventors are reported to have experimented with and even marketed traffic signals, Garrett A. Morgan was the first to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for such a device. The patent was granted on November 20, 1923. Morgan later had the technology patented in Great Britain and Canada as well.
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 traffic management device was used throughout North America until it was replaced by the 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. Shortly before his death, in 1963, Morgan was awarded a citation for his traffic signal by the United States Government.
Other Morgan Inventions – Garrett Morgan was constantly experimenting to develop new concepts. Though the traffic signalcame 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.
Morgan invented a zigzag stitching attachment for manually operated sewing machines. He also founded a company that made personal grooming products, such as hair dying ointments and the curved-tooth pressing comb.
Another Significant Contribution to Public Safety – On July 25, 1916, Morgan made national news for using a gas mask he had invented to rescue several men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel beneath Lake Erie. 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. In 1921, Morgan was awarded a patent for a Safety Hood and Smoke Protector. Two years later, a refined model of his early gas mask 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 Morgan’s life-saving 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. Garrett A 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 marvellous and lasting legacy.
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