Nov 20, 1923: Garrett Morgan Patents Traffic Signal
On this day in 1923, the U.S. Patent Office grants Patent No. 1,475,074 to 46-year-old inventor and newspaperman Garrett Morgan for his three-position traffic signal. Though Morgan’s was not the first traffic signal (that one had been installed in London in 1868), it was an important innovation nonetheless: By having a third position besides just “Stop” and “Go,” it regulated crossing vehicles more safely than earlier signals had.
Morgan, the child of two former slaves, was born in Kentucky in 1877. He moved to Cleveland, where he worked as a sewing-machine repairman. In 1907, he opened his own repair shop, and in 1909 he added a garment shop to his operation. The business was an enormous success, and by 1920 Morgan had made enough money to start a newspaper, the Cleveland Call, which became one of the most important black newspapers in the nation.
Morgan was prosperous enough to have a car, in fact he was the first black man in Cleveland to own a car. At that time the streets were crowded with all manner of vehicles: Bicycles, horse-drawn delivery wagons, streetcars and pedestrians all shared downtown Cleveland’s narrow streets and clogged its intersections.
There were manually operated traffic signals where major streets crossed one another, but they were not all that effective: They switched back and forth between Stop and Go but with no interval in between, drivers had no time to react when the command changed. This led to many collisions between vehicles that both had the right of way when they entered the intersection.
As the story goes, when Morgan witnessed an especially spectacular accident at an ostensibly regulated corner, he had an idea: If he designed an automated signal with an interim “warning” position—the ancestor of today’s yellow light—drivers would have time to clear the intersection before crossing traffic entered it.
The signal Morgan patented was a T-shaped pole with three settings. At night, when traffic was light, it could be set at half-mast (like a blinking yellow light today), warning drivers to proceed carefully through the intersection. He sold the rights to his invention to General Electric for $40,000.
His Gas Mask
Because of repeated incidents of firefighters being overcome by smoke when attempting to put out fires in his hometown of Cleveland, Morgan wanted to do something to help.
In 1914, he obtained a patent for his safety hood — a breathing device consisting of a canvas hood placed over the head. A double tube extended from the hood and merged into a single tube at the back. The open end held a sponge soaked with water to filter out smoke and to cool incoming air.
Shortly after receiving his patent, Morgan had a chance to put his invention to the test. In 1916 a tunnel was being constructed under Lake Erie. One night, there was an explosion in the tunnel. Three separate rescue parties entered the tunnel and never came out again.
In desperation, officials familiar with Morgan and his device summoned him. Morgan rushed to the scene wearing only pajama bottoms and carrying four of his safety hoods. Police and firefighters, having seen their compatriots descend into the smoky hole never to return, refused to go into the tunnel. Morgan, his brother and two volunteers put on the hoods and went in.
Morgan and his crew went into the tunnel again and again, pulling suffocating workers and rescuers to safety. Morgan even helped save the superintendent of the tunnel project by performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him.
The feat gained much publicity winning him numerous medals and helping him sell his invention to fire departments across the country.
There was some resistance to Morgan’s devices among buyers, particularly in the South, where racial tension remained palpable despite advancements in African-American rights. In an effort to counteract the resistance to his products, Morgan hired a white actor to pose as “the inventor” during presentations of his breathing device; Morgan would pose as the inventor’s sidekick, disguised as a Native American man named “Big Chief Mason,” and wearing his hood, enter areas otherwise unsafe for breathing. The tactic was successful; sales of the device were brisk, especially from firefighters and rescue workers.