Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan info cardQ: Garrett Morgan is featured in an animation video produced by Kendall College of Art and Design, Digital Art and Design students. Here is the expanded script for the animation. 

A: Garrett August Morgan was an inventor at heart. Most of us see and use his most famous invention every day, the three-signal traffic light. After witnessing numerous motor vehicle accidents because there was no interval from Stop to Go, Morgan realized that drivers needed to have a warning position in-between. Thus, the three-signal stop light was born.

Garrett Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky in 1877 to formerly enslaved parents. His parents were of Black, Native America, and white descent. As a teenager, he left Kentucky and moved north to Cincinnati, Ohio, in search of opportunities. He first worked as a handyman in Ohio and later opened his own sewing-machine repair shop. In 1905, Morgan started the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Co., to market a hair straightening solution and a complete line of hair care products for African American women.

He also started the Cleveland Call, a popular African American newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio in 1920.  He had an innovative mechanical mind and was a skilled entrepreneur. He was also a member of the NAACP, was active in the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, opened the all-Black Wakeman Country Club, and donated to HBCUs.

In 1912 he invented a “breathing device” that protected the wearer from smoke and gasses. The device was patented in 1914 and it was later used to rescue workers after the Cleveland Waterworks explosion disaster. The breathing device became the precursor for the gas mask used in WWI and won invention awards. Because Morgan lived in times where an invention by an African American was not respected, he resorted to hiring a white actor to pose as the inventor during presentations of the device.  

Morgan was the first African American to own a car in Cleveland, Ohio. Another one of his inventions was a friction drive clutch. But maybe his most impactful invention was the three-signal traffic device which added a warning light to alert drivers that they would need to stop soon. The 1923 invention was the precursor to the modern-day streetlight and is used all over the world. Morgan eventually sold the rights to his invention to General Electric for $40,000. 

What would driving be like had Morgan not invented the three-signal traffic light? Although Morgan received nearly $620,000 in today’s money, one must wonder if he was shortchanged for the invention due to his race? In 1920, there were nearly 400 patents per million granted to white inventors and only about 200 patents per million granted to African American inventors.

The story of Garrett Morgan’s inventions is occasionally told but usually only during Black History Month. His accomplishments and inventions not only saved lives but proves that Black History is simply American History and should be celebrated as such.

Jim Crow Museum Staff
2020 

Additional Resources

Biography.com Editors (2020, September 24). Garrett Morgan.
Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://www.biography.com/inventor/garrett-morgan

Blitz, M. (2017, November 14). The Untold Story of the Man Who Called Himself the "Black Edison". Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/design/a22802/garrett-morgan-inventor/ 

Cook, L. (2014). Violence and economic activity: Evidence from African American patents, 1870-1940. 
Journal of Economic Growth, 19(2), 221-257.
Retrieved November 10, 2020, from
http://www.jstor.org/stable/44113425 

History.com Editors. (2009, November 13). Garrett Morgan patents three-position traffic signal.
Retrieved November 10, 2020, from
https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/garrett-morgan-patents-three-position-traffic-signal 

MORGAN, GARRETT A.: Encyclopedia of Cleveland History: Case Western Reserve University. (2019, February 21).
Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://case.edu/ech/articles/m/morgan-garrett 

Peterson, E. (2019, February 26). The Remarkable Life Of Ohio Valley Native Garrett Morgan. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://wfpl.org/inventor-businessman-activist-the-remarkable-life-of-ohio-valley-native-garrett-morgan/