Updated 06-I-2018

Garrett A. Morgan

This article was written by fellow lamp engineer and collector Edward J. Covington, and originally appeared on his own website of biographical sketches of persons involved in the lamp industry. Following his passing in February 2017, and with kind permission of his family, Ed's words have been preserved here in the hope of maintaining access to his writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

Garrett A. Morgan1

This is a write-up about the inventor of the traffic light, Mr. Garrett Morgan, by the Ohio Motorists Association1. Because of its human interest the article will be quoted in its entirety.
"February is Black History Month. And our vote for the top salute in the Cleveland area goes to Garrett A. Morgan.

"Surely, few other figures in the black, white or any community's history can match the amazing story of Cleveland's version of Tom Edison. Yet Morgan is not well known.

"Drivers may fuss and cuss at the nameless inventor of the traffic signal when they hit a red light on a lonely road at 2 a. m. Even in more thoughtful moments—when a motorist realizes how utterly impossible it would be to move tens of thousands of cars through a busy city at the same time without traffic lights—the image of an inventor of the device remains a blur.

"Let's try to fill in the picture.

* * *

"On March 4, 1877, Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, to a mother who had once been a slave. But even as a youth he displayed the unique blend of imagination and perspiration that marks genius. Although he had only six years of education when he left home at age 14, he found work in Cincinnati and actually hired a tutor with his meager wages so he could continue his education. "Arriving in Cleveland in 1895, Morgan got a job maintaining sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. But a dozen years later, he went into business for himself, selling and repairing sewing machines. Always curious, Morgan experimented with various solutions to reduce friction in the operation of sewing machine needles—and by accident discovered a hair-straightening solution. So he went into business making and marketing hair care products—that is, shortly after he had also developed a tailoring shop—with 32 employees—to manufacture suits, dresses and coats.

"By 1915, Garrett Morgan had several diverse inventions to his credit, such as a woman's hat fastener, an automobile clutch and a "breathing device" which became the gas mask used by soldiers in World War I.

* * *

"When the tunnel for a water intake pipe was being dug out under Lake Erie, a gas explosion occurred in July, 1916. "After two rescue parties failed to reach the stricken sandhogs, Garrett and his brother Frank and two others donned Morgan's breathing devices, worked their way through the gas and debris-filled tunnel, and brought out the survivors.

"In November 1923, Garrett A. Morgan patented a unique set of 'stop' and 'go' lights with a third cautionary signal in-between when the lights were about to change. He sold his traffic light to the General Electric Co. for ,000—then a princely sum.

* * *

Morgan was a leader in the black community, serving as an officer in several organizations and establishing in 1920 the Cleveland call, a forerunner of the Cleveland Call & Post newspaper.

"Although he developed glaucoma in the 1940s and gradually lost his vision, Morgan kept designing new products and inventing new things almost until his death on July 27, 1963.

"If you happen to be driving west on the Shoreway in Cleveland, notice the sign on that red brick building near the lake. It proclaims the 'Garrett A. Morgan Water Plant' in honor of the heroic genius of Cleveland who saved the lives of so many people here and around the world with his 'breathing device' and saved the time of so many drivers everywhere by helping to create an orderly flow of vehicles with his traffic light. - F.J.T."

  1. "Cleveland's Edison: Garrett Morgan, traffic light inventor", Ohio Motorist, Vol.85 No.1, February 1993, p.4.