While many inventors are known primarily for one innovation, National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Garrett Morgan has the distinction of inventing two different technologies that continue to benefit people to this day: the safety hood, a forerunner of the gas mask, and the three-way traffic signal.
Born on March 4, 1887, in Claysville, Kentucky, Morgan came from humble beginnings. As the seventh of 11 children, much of his early life was spent at school and working on the family farm, and his family’s resources were tight.
In 1891, Morgan left home for Cincinnati in search of job opportunities, and he landed one as a handyman. After four years he moved to Cleveland, where he took a job sweeping floors at the Roots and McBribe Company and eventually taught himself how to fix the company’s broken sewing machines. Morgan quickly developed into a gifted machinist and tinkerer. These skills allowed him to open his own business: the Morgan Skirt Factory. There, his new wife Mary sewed clothes, and he both built and maintained the sewing machines.
The Breathing Device
Inspiration struck one day when Morgan saw firefighters struggling with smoke inhalation. Morgan filed for a patent in September 1912 for his “Breathing Device,” designed to provide a first responder with the ability “to supply himself at will with fresh air from near the floor [and] at the same time forcibly remove smoke or injurious gases from the air tube.”
Morgan, who was African American, had trouble selling his life-saving equipment to white fire chiefs who refused to buy something made by a Black inventor. In response, he sought out the advice of the famous entrepreneur J.P. Morgan, who respected Morgan’s ambition. The wealthy financier suggested that Morgan remove his first name from the product and instead call it the “Morgan Safety Hood.” Additionally, Morgan hired white actors to sell the product at conventions. These strategies proved successful, and Morgan sold his product to fire departments across the country.
The Traffic Signal
By the 1920s, Morgan had become a successful businessman and became the first African American to purchase an automobile in Cleveland. While driving one day, he witnessed a collision between a horse-drawn carriage and another vehicle.
Though rudimentary traffic lights existed at the time, they displayed only two signals: stop and go. Morgan’s T-shaped signal was different and included a “caution” light — the equivalent of today’s yellow light. According to the patent he was granted on November 20, 1923, his hand-operated signal stopped traffic “in all directions before the signal to proceed in any one direction is given,” which allowed vehicles that were already in an intersection to safely pass through without getting hit.
Morgan sold his patent rights for $40,000 to General Electric, who developed an electric version of the signal.
An Innovative Pioneer
Throughout his life, Morgan broke barriers and was an advocate for racial equality. In addition to forming one of the first Black fraternities in the country at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, he persevered during a time in America when Jim Crow era discrimination ran rampant. Fortunately, Morgan overcame all obstacles in his path, and at NIHF, we are proud to celebrate his legacy.
To learn more about our other world-changing Inductees, we invite you to visit our website.