Marking a century: Inventor Garrett Morgan honored this week on 100 years of the traffic signal

Garrett A. Morgan Sr. once saw a car and a carriage collide. The Clevelander was inspired to create the first traffic signal with a warning stage: the forerunner of today’s yellow light.

Morgan won a U.S. patent for the signal on Nov. 20, 1923. This week, his descendants and local history buffs will celebrate the 100th anniversary of that patent and commemorate his many other achievements.

Overcoming prejudice, hiding his race at times, and calling himself “The Black Edison” at others, Morgan became arguably Cleveland’s greatest inventor to date.

Bill Henrich, president of the Willoughby Historical Society, with a replica of Garrett Morgan's safety hood. Photo by Grant Segall.Bill Henrich, president of the Willoughby Historical Society, with a replica of Garrett Morgan's safety hood. Photo by Grant Segall.At least two of Morgan’s inventions saved lives. In 1916, he and other volunteers wore safety breathing hoods he created while rescuing workers from an exploded tunnel about 120 feet beneath Lake Erie.

Morgan was a true inventor—he also invented sewing machine parts, a cream and a comb to straighten hair, a friction drive clutch for vehicles, and more. He earned four U.S. patents, two foreign ones, two international prizes, and lasting fame. He became a wealthy entrepreneur and reportedly the first local Black person to own a car.

He was active in civic affairs too. He created an early Black country club. He helped start what became the “Call & Post” newspaper and the Cleveland NAACP. He ran vainly for Cleveland City Council.

His grandson, Garrett Morgan III, summers at the inventor’s former Wakeman Country Club along the Vermilion River in Huron County. “He was a very generous man,” he says of his grandfather. “He loved his family. But he was tough. Even in old age, he was not to be toyed with.”

Sandra Morgan, the inventor’s granddaughter and an outreach administrator at Kent State University, is too young to remember him. But she said his legacy inspires her “not only because of his ingenuity and inventiveness but his esprit de corps.”

Poverty and creativity

Garrett Augustus Morgan was born to former slaves in Paris, Kentucky. and was reportedly the grandson of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan of Morgan’s Raiders, who invaded Ohio and other Union states.

Garrett Morgan went to school through sixth grade, moved to Cincinnati at 14, worked as a handyman, and hired a tutor for his additional studies.

At about age 18, Morgan moved to Cleveland. He began fixing sewing machines for a garment maker. Soon he gave the machines improvements, such as a belt fastener and a zigzag attachment.

He used a liquid to polish needles, spilled a little, and found that it straightened hair.

After a dozen years, he opened a sewing machine shop. Soon he added a ladies’ clothing store and a hair products factory.

Garrett A. Morgan bringing a victim ashoreGarrett A. Morgan bringing a victim ashoreIn 1914, Morgan got two patents for parts of his safety hood. Its long tubes brought rescuers relatively fresh air from near their feet.

To sell the hood, Morgan sometimes had a white actor pose as the inventor. Then Morgan, the real inventor, would wade hooded into a controlled cloud of smoke.

He sold masks to fire departments and the U.S. Navy.

The 1916 explosion killed many workers and rescuers, though reports of the numbers vary. After hours of failed rescue efforts, the police summoned Morgan late at night. He, his brother, and a few volunteers donned the hoods and rode down a shaft toward the victims.

Years later, Morgan would say, “I can still see the men curled up in that death chamber.” But Morgan and his helpers rescued every survivor.

Officials honored and rewarded several survivors but ignored Morgan. He wrote a letter of protest to Cleveland mayor Harry Davis: “...I am not a well-educated man; however, I have a Ph.D. from the school of hard knocks and cruel treatment....”

Taming traffic

Back in the 1920s, the number of cars on the streets was growing. Police tried to control busy intersections, but they were somewhat hidden by the heavy traffic. In 1923, 18,400 Americans died from vehicle accidents, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

Cleveland had already installed the nation’s first electric traffic signal in 1914 at Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street. Morgan’s signal was manual, with a crank to raise, lower, and rotate three tall arms, which were marked “Stop” on some sides and “Go” on others. The signal operator could indicate to drivers on one crossroad to stop before signaling drivers on the other to go.

Morgan sold the signal’s rights to General Electric for $40,000—which would be more than $700,000 today. With those proceeds, he bought 250 acres in rural Wakeman for a country club. He sold small lots for use as second homes and built a dance and dining hall for the owners to share.

Many sides of Morgan

The inventor kept busy in many other ways, and so did his wife, their three children, and other relatives. His wife, Mary, collected rents from their several properties, shipped products, and more. As a little boy, Garrett Morgan III bottled and sealed potions and toted them to the post office in his wagon.

In his free time, the progenitor hunted, fished, traveled, and camped—despite restrictions against Black people in those activities. In old age, glaucoma left Morgan nearly blind, but he still recognized all the birds by their calls.

He kept inventing, too. One of Morgan’s last creations was a cigarette that extinguished itself, thanks to a pellet of water behind the filter. He died in 1963 at age 86.

Leaving a legacy

Morgan’s reputation lives on at the National Inventors Hall of Fame and The Smithsonian Institution, which displays one of his traffic signals.

Garrett A. Morgan Safety SystemGarrett A. Morgan Safety SystemThe U.S. Patent Office posted a tribute to Morgan this month: “...It was his determination, resourcefulness, and dedication to public service that made him a success.... Throughout his career, he found innovative ways to make his community a better place for all.”

Today, Morgan’s name is borne in Cleveland by two schools, a water plant, and a new fireboat. In other states, his name is honored by schools and a street. Then there is a national transportation design contest and a federal program that teaches youth about the transportation field.

The last of his namesakes is Garrett Morgan IV. The resident of Oakland, California is an inventor himself. He makes prototypes for Meta, Facebook’s parent company. At home, he fabricates tools and concocts other devices.

Morgan IV says that his great-grandfather’s fame seems to be growing lately, perhaps because of growing interest in Black history. The descendant says he is asked to speak about him several times a year.

“We’ve all made a point to honor the legacy as much as we could,” Morgan IV says of his family. “My great-grandfather opened a lot of doors for a lot of people, including my family.”

Morgan’s traffic signal was first tested in Willoughby at a site chosen for its level of traffic. This Wednesday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m., his descendants will give a public talk sponsored by the Willoughby Historical Society at Chesbrough House, 38115 Euclid Ave.

On Saturday, Nov. 18 at 12 p.m., his descendants will help officials rededicate a replica of the traffic signal at Vine and Erie Streets in Willoughby.

Grant Segall
Grant Segall

About the Author: Grant Segall

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning reporter named this year as Ohio’s best freelancer. He wrote "John D. Rockefeller: Anointed with Oil" (Oxford University Press, 2001). Much additional information for this article comes from David Nasaw’s “Andrew Carnegie,” Ron Chernow’s “Titan,” Chernow’s “House of Morgan,” and his American Heritage article on U.S. Steel’s creation.