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Did You Know? Three-Light Traffic Indicator Was Designed By An African-American Inventor

Many are not aware that the globally used three-light traffic indicator was designed by an African-American Inventor and Businessman, Garrett Morgan in 1923. If you are one of those, now you know.

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 hand-cranked semaphore traffic management device was in use throughout North America until all manual traffic signals were replaced by the automatic 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.

Garrett Morgan was an inventor and businessman from Cleveland who was also best known for inventing a device called the Morgan Safety Hood and Smoke Protector in 1914. The invention was later dubbed the gas mask.

The son of a formerly enslaved man and woman, Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in Claysville, Kentucky, in 1877. Garrett was the seventh of 11 children, and 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 opportunities.

Although Morgan’s formal education never took him beyond elementary school, he worked to give himself an education, hiring a tutor while living in Cincinnati and continuing his studies in English grammar. 

In 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he went to work as a sewing machine repairman for a clothing manufacturer, teaching himself as much as he could about sewing machinery and experimenting with the process. 

Word of his experiments and his proficiency for fixing things traveled fast, and he worked for numerous manufacturing firms in the Cleveland area.

With only an elementary school education, Black inventor Garrett Morgan came up with several significant inventions, including an improved sewing machine and the gas mask. However, one of Morgan’s most influential inventions was the improved traffic indicator. Without his innovation, drivers across the nation would be directed by a two-light system.

Morgan was the first African American to purchase an automobile in Cleveland, and it was Morgan’s experience while driving along the streets of that city that inspired him to invent an improvement to traffic signals.

After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan took his turn at inventing a traffic indicator. While other inventors had experimented with, marketed, and even patented traffic signals, Morgan was one of the first to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for an inexpensive way to produce a traffic signal. The patent was granted on November 20, 1923. Morgan also had his invention patented in Great Britain and Canada.

Morgan gained recognition at the Emancipation Centennial Celebration in Chicago, Illinois, in August 1963; schools and streets were named in his honor. He was also included in the 2002 book, “100 Greatest African Americans” by Molefi Kete Asante; he was also an honorary member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

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