Garrett Morgan: A Hero and An Inventor

Traffic Signal and American Flag

Garrett Morgan was born around 1877 in Paris, Kentucky.  He did not receive a formal education beyond a several-year period of time when he was living with his parents.  He later hired a tutor, for himself, after he left his parents' home.  He eventually moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1895 where he became an entrepreneur, an inventor, the founder of a local newspaper, and a community leader.

When he moved to Cleveland he got a job as a machinist in a textile factory.  He and his wife then opened up a shirtwaist company-- shirtwaist was a style of women's clothing (a long shirt) that was popular at the time.

While there Morgan also helped to establish the Cleveland Call, an African-American newspaper, where he could smartly advertise his other products, such as his straightening comb and his haircare products for Black consumers.


His most famous invention was the three-way traffic signal, for which he received a patent on November 20, 1923.  

He noticed that the traffic signals, of that time, did not offer any way to caution traffic to slow down between their "stop" and "go" signs.  This made for dangerous circumstances as cars were forced to make immediate stops and then to go, immediately, when the signal changed.

Traffic Signal in San Francisco

Morgan developed a T-shaped device that had three signals--two of them were "stop" and "go" signals for traffic in two directions and the other signal was used for stopping traffic in all directions, before the "stop" and "go" signals were activated.  The device became the forerunner of today's modern yellow light.

General Electric purchased Morgan's patent for $40,000 and his invention was used throughout North America until the red, yellow, and green traffic signals, we use today, became the standard.

An Heroic Rescue

His most important invention, however, was made in 1912--the gas mask.  Morgan's gas mask eventually gained international attention as fire departments in the U.S. began to purchase it and, during World War I, the military used his mask to help protect soldiers from chlorine gas fumes.  This was a remarkable invention as it helped make firefighters and soldiers more mobile in certain crisis situations.

A horrible accident would go on to further prove the value of his invention.

In July of 1916 workers in Cleveland were digging in a tunnel under Lake Erie to help improve the city's water system, when they hit a natural gas area.  The incident caused an explosion and the men were in danger of losing their lives.  

Authorities sent ten rescuers into the tunnel to retrieve the men, but none of them returned.  Fearing that this was a complete disaster, the Cleveland police called Garrett Morgan in and asked him to use his gas mask and to help with the rescue.

Morgan, along with his brother Frank and two other men, went into the tunnel which was filled with gas and made their way to the bodies.  

Garret Morgan

Garrett Morgan pulled out two men who were still alive and the group was able to recover four more bodies. 

Later the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission investigated the rescue and gave awards to people who were involved in the rescue, but Morgan did not receive any of the awards...most likely because he was African-American. 

Also, the City Council drew up a resolution to recognize him with $2,000 for his heroic efforts but it, too, was struck down by other authorities.

Finally a group of citizens presented Garrett Morgan with a diamond-studded medal for his efforts and the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Cleveland Association of Colored Men (which he helped to found) gave Garrett recognition for his heroism.

Amazingly, Garrett Morgan lived for 86 years and died about one month before the March on Washington, in July of 1963 (b. 1877 - d. July 1963).


Copyright 2014 and 2017, Red and Black Ink, LLC.


United States Patent and Trademark Office, Press Release 01-54.  Traffic signal patent issued November 20, 1923.  Accessed 04-2014.

The Library of Congress, Thomas.  Congressional Record, 102nd Congress (1991 - 1992).  A Special Salute to Cleveland Inventor Garret A. Morgan -- Hon. Louis Stokes (Extension of Remarks - July 22, 1991).  Accessed 04-2014.

The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Waterworks Tunnel Disasters.  Case Western Reserve University.  Accessed 04-2014.


Traffic Signals. Red and Black Ink, LLC.

Wikicommons, Garrett Morgan newspaper clipping.

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Danita Smith