Black History: The Man Who Invented the Modern Traffic Signal

A traffic light

Cleveland, Ohio, was an industrial boomtown in the years after World War One.

The city was growing by leaps and bounds, thanks to the steel industry, the automobile industry and other big businesses.

And along with a growing population, there was also a growing number of cars.

Cars were pretty new back then.

And according to at least one historian, Garrett Morgan was the first African-American man in Cleveland to own one.

“He always loved sweet-looking rides,” his granddaughter Sandra Morgan recalled recently, according to historian Margaret Bernstein.

According to one account, Morgan was at a busy Cleveland intersection one day when he witnessed a particularly bad collision.

And as he analyzed what had happened, he realized what the underlying problem was.

Back in those days, traffic signals didn’t have a “warning” signal.

It was just “stop” or “go.”

And a lot of times, the sign would switch while a car was in the middle of the intersection – with no time to get out.

That gave Morgan an idea.

He created a traffic signal that had a third competent – the “warning” sign that had been missing up until that point.

And on November 20th, 1923, the U.S. Patent Office officially recognized his new invention.

Originally, the traffic signal that Morgan invented had to be operated manually.

But eventually, he sold the rights to his traffic signal to the huge General Electric Company.

And that led to the creation of the modern traffic light – the lights we see today at intersections all over the world.

Not bad for a man who had only a fifth-grade education, according to his granddaughter.

“He had higher expectations for himself,” Sandra Morgan said, according to Bernstein.

Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky in 1877 – just 12 years after the abolition of slavery.

As a teenager, he moved to Ohio to find work.

At first, finding work was difficult – even up north – because a lot of businesses would not hire a black man.

But Morgan was determined.

Eventually, he became a successful businessman himself — and a newspaper publisher as well.

And he invented a number of other products in addition to the traffic signal – including a gas mask that became the model for the protective masks worn by soldiers during World War I.

Garrett Morgan died on August 27th, 1963 – the day before Martin Luther King Junior gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC.

But Morgan’s legacy lives on in the inventions that he created and inspired.

And his determination to be somebody – despite the racial discrimination he faced — helped open new roads to success, for the generations that have followed him.

“If a man puts something to block your way, the first time, you go around it,” he once said.  “The second time, you go over it.  And the third time, you go through it.”