For the past 100 years, traffic signals have brought essential safety to our travels. Each time you use your community’s roads and sidewalks, whether you’re commuting to work or school, or enjoying a stroll around your neighborhood, you benefit from a more orderly flow of traffic thanks to the enduring work of National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductee Garrett Morgan.
Morgan was granted a patent for the three-way traffic signal on Nov. 20, 1923. As we recognize the 100th anniversary of this historic patent, join us in reflecting on Morgan’s innovative path — a path that required persistence, ingenuity and a drive to improve others’ lives.
Machinist, Entrepreneur, Inventor
Born March 4, 1877, in Claysville, Kentucky, Morgan was 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 McBride Co., and he eventually taught himself how to fix the company’s broken sewing machines. Morgan quickly developed into a gifted machinist, and his skills allowed him to open his own business: the Morgan Skirt Factory. There, his new wife Mary sewed clothes, while he built and maintained the sewing machines.
Inspiration for Morgan’s first invention — the gas mask — struck one day when he saw firefighters struggling with smoke inhalation. Determined to provide a solution, Morgan filed for a patent in September 1912 for a breathing device designed to give a first responder 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.”
Despite the invention’s lifesaving potential, Morgan encountered difficulty in selling it to white fire chiefs who refused to buy any product made by a Black inventor. In response, he sought 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, eschewing racist objections. These strategies proved successful, and Morgan sold his product to fire departments across the country.
Advancing Safety and Improving Everyday Life
By the 1920s, Morgan had become a successful businessman and was the first Black American to purchase an automobile in Cleveland. While driving one day, he witnessed a collision between a horse-drawn carriage and another vehicle.
Just like the moment that sparked his development of the gas mask, Morgan saw people in need and was compelled to apply his talents and skills to improve their health and safety.
Though rudimentary traffic lights existed at the time, they displayed only two signals: stop and go. In contrast, Morgan’s innovative T-shaped signal included a “caution” light — the equivalent of today’s yellow light.
According to his patent, Morgan’s hand-operated signal stopped traffic “in all directions before the signal to proceed in any one direction is given.” This 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, and the company developed an electric version of the signal.
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 remained committed to progress during a time in America when Jim Crow era discrimination ran rampant.
At the National Inventors Hall of Fame, we are proud to celebrate Morgan’s legacy and to share his story with coming generations who will carry forward his lessons in perseverance, innovation and problem solving for the common good.
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