Sunday, November 20, will mark the 99th anniversary of the date the US Patent Office awarded Patent No. 1,475,074 to 46-year-old Garrett Morgan for his three-position traffic signal, one of many inventions that changed how we all live our daily lives.
Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky on March 4, 1877, as the seventh of 11 children. His father was a formerly enslaved man of African descent, and his mother was the daughter of a Baptist minister and was of Indian and African descent. In his teens, he learned how to repair tools and machinery and worked for a wealthy landowner before working several jobs at sewing machine factories. It was there that Garrett Morgan would get his first spark of creativity. As he learned the inner workings of sewing machines, he became transfixed with how to improve them. Coming up with his solution for fixing sewing machines for the better, Mr. Morgan obtained a patent for an improved design and opened his own repair business. This first invention would not be his last, as Mr. Morgan was often inspired to address real-world issues facing the public at his time. Garrett Morgan would go on to find success in creating hair straightening products for African Americans. This success allowed him to pursue other interests, including a breathing device that would become the prototype for gas masks used during World War I.
One of Mr. Morgan’s later inventions would transform modern America. After becoming the first Black man in Cleveland to own a car, Morgan observed a street accident between two vehicles and once again thought of a solution. In November 1923, he created a new traffic signal with a warning light to alert drivers to stop. Mr. Morgan was able to acquire the patents for his traffic signal in the United States, Britain, and Canada. Mr. Morgan eventually sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000, the equivalent of $697,104.09 today.
Beyond Garrett Morgan’s contributions to society, the inventor played a significant role in the black community as a member of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, donated to Negro colleges and opened an all-Black country club. Additionally, in 1920, he launched the African American newspaper, the Cleveland Call (later named the Call and Post).
Countless lives were improved and saved by Garrett Morgan’s work, which to this day serves as a blueprint for many advancements in technology. Garrett Morgan is more than just his inventions. He is a pillar of inspiration and innovation for the African American community and beyond and a prime example of how one small idea can have the power to change the world.
From a lifesaving breathing device to the modern-day traffic signal, the vision, service, and ingenuity of Mr. Garrett Morgan should hold a special place in American history.