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An innovation that’s saved countless lives: 100 years of Garrett Morgan’s traffic signal

Portrait of Garrett A. Morgan, circa 1875. (Photo: Fotosearch/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Whenever Sandra Morgan approaches an intersection as the light shifts from green to yellow, she said she feels a touch of pride.

“I’m reminded of my unique family heritage and my grandfather’s contribution to public safety,” Morgan told CNN.

It’s been 100 years since Garrett Morgan, Sandra’s grandfather, patented the three-position traffic signal. Morgan said she’s proud of her family’s legacy and is often struck by the fact that her grandfather’s invention has saved an untold number of lives.

But the origin of Morgan’s traffic signal, she said, was sparked by a tragedy.

Bringing traffic to a standstill

Before Garrett Morgan’s invention was patented in 1923, traffic signals were manually operated by officers with only two instructions – stop and go.

The roads were congested with horse-drawn carriages, streetcars, automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians, according to Rebekah Oakes, a US Patent and Trademark historian.

“A lot of people were brand new drivers,” she said. “So, there was lot of chaos on the roads and not a lot of standardization and signals.”

Without an interval between stop and go, traffic patterns didn’t have time to adjust to changing signals. Crashes happened frequently and were often fatal.

“Because of the chaos and the novelty of the vehicles, there was a very high likelihood for accidents to occur,” Oakes said.

Morgan himself witnessed a terrible collision between a horse-drawn buggy and a vehicle at a busy Ohio intersection, which Oakes said was unfortunately common at the time.

“My Uncle John (John Morgan) and my dad (Garrett Morgan Jr.) were actually in the car with my grandfather, and they saw the accident,” Sandra Morgan said.

But that accident, she added, sparked Morgan’s life-saving idea: add a “caution” signal in between stop and go.

On November 20th, 1923, the US Patent Office granted Morgan a patent for his improved traffic signal invention.

“His patent for a mechanical traffic signal contained an intermediate step between ‘stop’ and ‘go’ that cleared the intersection,” Oakes said. “Today, we know it as the caution light or yellow light.”

Morgan’s original design was a T-shaped pole with three arms that controlled the flow of traffic through an intersection. Oakes said the intermediate, or ‘caution’ signal occurred when all three arms were raised upright, indicating that traffic should halt in all directions.

Morgan’s design could also be adjusted to traffic density. At night, or during low traffic periods, “the Morgan signal could be positioned in a half-mast posture, alerting approaching motorists to proceed through the intersection with caution,” according to the US Department of Transportation.

General Motors purchased Morgan’s patent for the traffic signal in 1923 for $40,000 – equivalent to more than $700,000 today.

At the time, Oakes said electricity was starting to be integrated into city infrastructures and General Motors was interested in purchasing rights to multiple patents of different traffic signals. Take a closer look at these texas car accidents reports for timely updates on traffic-related incidents.

“They took the idea from Morgan’s patent for that intermediate signal to clear the intersection and added it to the electric traffic signals,” Oakes said.

A century later, there are more than 300,000 signalized intersections across the US, according to Steve Kuciemba, CEO of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

“Garrett Morgan saw a problem, came up with a solution, and 100 years later we are all still using some variation of his original invention,” Kuciemba said.

The Black Edison

Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, in 1877 to parents who were formerly enslaved. He attended a segregated school for colored children and excelled in his classes, according to his granddaughter.

“Essentially in terms of formal education, he had a 6th grade education,” Sandra Morgan said. “(But) he was always seeking information.

As a teenager, Garret Morgan moved to Cincinnati to find work and hired a tutor to continue his education. He later moved to Cleveland where he began working in the textile industry and met his wife, Mary.

By 1909, Morgan owned a successful repair shop in Cleveland where he fixed and sold sewing machines, and a tailor shop where he made suits, dresses, and coats.

He also founded the Cleveland Call in 1919, a local newspaper for the city’s Black residents – which would later merge with the Cleveland Post to become the Call and Post, one of the most successful Black newspapers in the state.

Despite juggling multiple jobs, his granddaughter said Morgan always maintained a passion for inventing, along with his entrepreneurial spirit.

And in time, Morgan would coin a new nickname.

“He called himself a Black Edison,” his granddaughter said.

The Lake Erie explosion

In 1912, Morgan created a safety hood, which made it easier and safer to breathe in toxic or smoke-filled environments. The design was the precursor to today’s gas mask.

Two years later, Morgan received two patents for the inventions. This design went on to win first prize at the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation.

But despite his success as a businessman and inventor, Sandra Morgan said her grandfather was still subjected to pervasive racism and discrimination, adding that the racial climate prompted Morgan to shift his business strategy when it came to marketing the breathing device.

Morgan intentionally tried to obscure his race when advertising the product and relied on White business partners to stand in as the inventor when he performed public demonstrations of the hood, Oakes said.

But in 1916, his ruse was exposed after a tragic natural gas explosion at Lake Erie trapped a working crew underground, according to Oakes.

The Cleveland Police Department contacted Morgan and asked him to bring his safety hoods to the scene and he teamed up with other volunteers to lead a rescue attempt.

“Twenty total died in the incident and eight people were rescued,” Oakes said.

While the explosion gained national attention, so did Morgan’s real identity. “When word got out about the rescue and his role in it, it revealed that Garrett Morgan was a Black man,” Oakes said.

“Customers actually ended up canceling their orders for the safety hood. Even though the incident obviously revealed how important and successful his invention was.”

Still, Morgan’s safety hood went on to be adopted by fire stations across the country and is the predecessor for the gas masks used in World War I.

Saving countless lives

Although prototypes of the safety hood and traffic signal were in her childhood home, Sandra Morgan said she never had the chance to personally know her grandfather. The inventor died when she was only a year old in 1963.

Shortly before his death, the US government issued Garrett Morgan a citation for his improved traffic signal. In 2005, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

“From an early age, I understood he had created these items, although not necessarily understanding how dramatically important they were,” she said. “That would come a little bit later.”

Sandra’s father, Garrett Morgan Jr., made sure to teach her about her grandfather’s legacy.

Today, Sandra vows to ensure that legacy isn’t forgotten.

“I’ve really worked hard to make sure that Garrett Morgan is included in the social studies portion of the school curriculum in the state of Ohio,” she said.

Oakes agreed that the inventor’s legacy should be preserved.

“He (was) not only looking to invent for the sake of inventing, or to commercialize and make money, although that’s certainly part of his goal,” Oakes said. “He’s also trying to make his community a better place.”

While the traffic signal has evolved over the years, Sandra Morgan said she’s proud her grandfather’s innovation continues to have an impact today.

“The principles behind it are the same as they have been for the past 100 years. It has made a huge difference in the way the traffic flows, not only in this country but around the world,” Morgan said.

“It has saved countless lives.”

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