6th October 2021

Black History Month: The story of Garrett Morgan

This October, Footman James is marking Black History Month with a celebration of some key Black and Brown figures from the automotive landscape. Our last feature told of the astounding lifetime achievements of Charlie Wiggins; now, we’re heading off the circuit, to an inventor whose sagacious inventions are still making our lives safer today.

Like Wiggins’, Garrett Morgan’s life began in challenging circumstances. Born in Kentucky in 1877, Morgan’s parents had been emancipated from slavery a short time before his birth, and his school education ended prematurely when he was just 14. After moving to Cincinnati, Ohio, he began working several jobs to support himself, spending his spare income on further education.

By his late teens, Morgan had moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and was working in a sewing machine repair shop. It was here that he discovered his talent for understanding how things work; through sheer grit and determination, Morgan saved enough to establish a repair business of his own. He quickly expanded into tailoring and personal grooming and, by 1920, he was a wealthy businessman with multiple patents to his name.

Around this time, a chance encounter led Morgan to one of his most important inventions. After witnessing a traffic collision, he began work on a new three-signal, pole-mounted light intended to improve safety at busy intersections.

Building on existing ‘stop/go’ semaphore systems, which had been derived from the railway, Morgan’s innovation was an additional yellow light that gave advanced warning to motorists and pedestrians. This extra step would help motorists and pedestrians anticipate changes to the flow of traffic, and ensure intersections were clear when the right of way changed.

Part of the genius of the new design was that it could also be manufactured more cheaply, allowing rapid implementation at the most dangerous crossings. Morgan filed the patent in 1923, selling the rights to General Electric for around $40,000, and soon his traffic signal was everywhere.

Morgan didn’t just make our roads safer; his eye for improvement led to him inventing ‘the smoke hood’, an early breathing device that would protect firefighters and rescue workers against toxic fumes. He also helped to establish the ‘Cleveland Association of Colored Men’ and pivotal Black newspaper ‘The Cleveland Call’.

It’s impossible to quantify how many lives have been saved thanks to the ingenuity of Garrett Morgan. His contributions to road safety are just part of the vast legacy of a truly illustrious African American inventor.

Did you know Garrett's story? Let us know in the comments below. If you'd like to read all about Charlie Wiggins, you can do so here.