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Safer Stop and Go: Garrett Morgan’s Traffic Signal Legacy

Inventor, Invention, and Patent

by FHWA staff writer

headshot of Garrett A. Morgan
Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. was an American inventor whose curiosity and innovation led him to develop several commercial products, the successors of which are still in use today. A practical man of humble beginnings, Morgan devoted his life to creating items that made the lives of common people safer and more convenient.

Among his creations was the three-position traffic signal, a traffic management device that greatly improved safety along America's streets and roadways.

Morgan's technology was the basis for the modern-day traffic signal and was a significant contribution to development of what we now know as Intelligent Transportation Systems.

The Inventor's Early Life

Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. was born in Paris, Kentucky on March 4. 1877. His parents were former slaves.

Morgan spent his early childhood attending school and working with his brothers and sisters on the family farm. He left Kentucky while still a teenager, moving north to Cincinnati, Ohio in search of employment.

An industrious youth, Morgan spent most of his adolescence working as a handyman for a wealthy Cincinnati landowner. Similar to many African Americans of his generation, whose circumstances compelled them to begin working at an early age, Morgan's formal education ended after elementary school. Eager to expand his knowledge, however, the precocious teenager hired a tutor and continued his studies in English grammar while living in Cincinnati.

In 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked as a sewing machine repair man for a clothing manufacturer. Experimenting with gadgets and materials to discover better ways of performing his trade became Morgan’s passion. News of his proficiency for fixing things traveled fast and led to numerous job opportunities with various manufacturing firms throughout the Cleveland area.

Morgan opened his own sewing equipment and repairs shop in 1907. It was the first of several businesses he would start. In 1909, he expanded the enterprises to include a tailoring shop, which retained 32 employees. The new company made coats, suits, and dresses, all sewn with equipment the budding inventor had made himself.

In 1920 Morgan started the Cleveland Call newspaper. As the years progressed, he became a prosperous and widely respected businessman. His prosperity enabled him to purchase a home and an automobile. Morgan's experiences driving through the streets of Cleveland are what led him to invent the nation's first patented three-position traffic signal.

Diagram of a T-shaped traffic signal dated November 20, 1923.
Garrett A. Morgan’s illustration for his T-shaped traffic signal patent in 1923.

The Three-Position Traffic Signal

The first American-made automobiles were introduced to U.S. consumers shortly before the turn of the century. Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 and with it, American consumers began to discover the adventures of the open road.

At that time, it was not uncommon for bicycles, animal-powered carts, and motor vehicles to share the same thoroughfares with pedestrians. Crashes frequently occurred between the vehicles. After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan was convinced that something should be done to improve traffic safety.

While other inventors are reported to have experimented with and even marketed their own three-position traffic signals, Garrett A. Morgan was the first to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for such a device. The patent was granted on November 20, 1923. Morgan later had the technology patented in Great Britain and Canada as well.

Prior to Morgan's invention, most of the traffic signals in use featured only two-positions: Stop and Go. Manually operated, these two-position traffic signals were an improvement over no signal at all, but because they allowed no interval between the Stop and Go commands, collisions at busy intersections were common during the transition moving from one street to the other.

Another problem with the two-position traffic signals was the susceptibility to human error. Operator fatigue invariably resulted in erratic timing of the Stop and Go command changes, which confused both drivers and pedestrians. At night, when traffic officers were off duty, motorists frequently ignored the signals altogether.

a modern traffic signal showing a green light at the bottom
Source: [mstock]stock.

The Morgan traffic signal was a T-shaped pole unit that featured three positions: Stop, Go and an all-directional stop position. The third position halted traffic in directions before it allowed travel to resume on either of the intersection's perpendicular roads. This feature not only made it safer for motorists to pass through intersections, but also allowed pedestrians to cross more safely.

At tight, or at other times when traffic was minimal, the Morgan signal could be positioned in a half-mast posture, alerting approaching motorists to proceed through the intersection with caution. The half-mast position had the same signaling effect as the flashing red and yellow lights of today’s traffic signals.

Morgan's traffic management technology was used throughout North America until it was replaced by the red, yellow, and green-light traffic signals currently used around the world. The inventor eventually sold the rights to his traffic signal to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000. Shortly before his death in 1963, Morgan was awarded a citation for the traffic signal by the U.S. Government.

Another Significant Contribution to Public Safety

In 1912, Morgan received a patent on a Safety Hood and Smoke Protector. Two years later, a refined model of this early gas mask won a gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

On July 25, 1916, Morgan made national news for using his gas mask to rescue several men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel beneath Lake Erie. Following the rescue, Morgan's company was bombarded with requests from fire departments around the country that wished to purchase the new lifesaving masks. The Morgan gas mask was later refined for use by U.S. soldiers during World War I.

As word spread across North America and England about Morgan’s life-saving inventions, such as the gas mask and the traffic signal, demand for these products grew far beyond his hometown. He was frequently invited to conventions and public exhibitions around the country to show how his inventions worked.

The Federal Highway Administration honors Garrett Morgan’s contributions to making the world a better place, through programs like the Garrett A Morgan Transportation Technology Education Program, which helps K-12 students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to become “tomorrow’s transportation professionals.”