Aaron DiManna
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Garrett Morgan: The Man Who Changed the Way We Drive

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A picture of the inventor, Garrett Morgan
Photo: Wikimedia Commons via CC

History is filled with brilliant inventors who came up with objects, systems, and technologies that make everyday life easier and safer. Some, like Thomas Edison, are known around the world for their contributions. Others are less well-known. One such person is Garrett Morgan, a Black man who defied the norms of the time and patented multiple brilliant items. The most impactful of these is undoubtedly the three-light traffic signal.

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A bit of backstory

Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky in 1877. Both of his parents, Sydney and Elizabeth, were formerly enslaved, one of whom was the son of Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan. At the tender age of 14, Morgan moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to find a job. He’d only completed sixth grade.

For the next few years, Morgan worked as a handyman in the area before moving on to repair sewing machines. That experience fueled his love for understanding how things worked, and he eventually opened up a sewing machine shop and a ladies’ clothing store and began thinking up his own inventions. By 1923, he had moved to Cleveland and secured patents for a wide range of products, including an early gas mask, a line of hair care products, and of, course, the three-light traffic signal.

One of the first yellow lights

As the number of motorized vehicles began to grow in the early 1900s, the road became a less predictable place. Cars, bikes, and horse-drawn carriages all shared the same space, and would frequently collide. One day, when Morgan was driving around Cleveland, he saw a particularly nasty accident at an intersection. His idea was that crossroads would be much safer if traffic lights weren’t a binary stop-and-go. So, he took to designing a system with a warning light that would tell drivers and riders when it was gearing up to change from green to red. In 1923, Morgan held a patent for the invention in the U.S.A., Canada, and Britain.

Morgan’s automotive legacy

Believe it or not, Garrett Morgan’s impact on the automotive world doesn’t stop with the three-light traffic signal. He used his decades of experience with mechanical systems to develop a friction drive clutch — a technology that replaced a drivetrain’s chain and sprocket system with two interlocking wheels.

Even more impressively, Morgan, the son of enslaved people who moved from Kentucky with nothing more than a sixth-grade education, was the first Black man in Cleveland to own a car. If that’s not inspirational, I don’t know what is.

If you don’t trust the traffic light: Trust a safe vehicle