In the late 1890s, the car was introduced to the US and the first problem was traffic. The Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 and with it American consumers began to discover the adventures of the open road. We’re still adventuring and Americans still drive more than we probably should. A police officer in Detroit, Michigan, came up with the idea of using lights similar to that of the railroad, and by adding in amber (yellow), he invented the light we use today. Back then, traffic lights were manually controlled, and some poor schlub had to sit around and flick his Bic all day.
Enter Garrett Augustus Morgan, a plainly educated African-American businessman and inventor. Naturally curious and innovative, he developed a bevy of useful and helpful products. He devoted his life to creating things that made the lives of other people safer and more convenient.
Back in those early days, bicycles, animal-powered wagons and new gasoline-powered motor vehicles shared the same streets and roadways with pedestrians. As you can guess, accidents were frequent. After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan was convinced that something should be done to improve traffic safety.
Let the record show, that history mentions other inventors marketed their own traffic signals. But Morgan was the first to apply for and acquire a patent (Patent U.S. 1,475,024). The patent was granted on November 20, 1923 and Morgan later had the technology patented in Great Britain and Canada as well.
The Morgan traffic signal was a T-shaped pole unit that featured three positions: Stop, Go and an all-directional stop position. This “third position” halted traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross streets more safely. There was no amber light just yet, even though Detroit had it working.
Still, suddenly Cleveland’s streets were safer because you could know when to cross the street and NOT be hit by a car! Later on, this system was tied into the crosswalk system so that everyone go the correct light. That would have been some pretty scary beta testing. While technology improved, Morgan’s patent is the basis for all lights we use today, and was an early example of what we know today as Intelligent Transportation Systems.
Morgan’s traffic management device was used throughout North America until it was replaced by the red, yellow and green-light traffic signals currently used around the world. The inventor sold the rights to his traffic signal to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000. Shortly before his death, in 1963, Morgan was awarded a citation for his traffic signal by the United States Government.
Morgan also invented a zig-zag stitching attachment for manually operated sewing machine, a belt fastener for sewing machines, and founded a company that made personal grooming products, such as hair dying ointments and the curved-tooth pressing comb.
One of my personal favorite inventions of his is the gas mask (Patent U.S. 1,113,675). This breathing device consisted of a canvas hood placed over the head, with a double tube extending from the hood, merging into a single tube at the back. A water-soaked sponge attached to the open end of the tube filtered out smoke. Morgan’s gas mask did not look like the gas masks of today. Officially it was called the Morgan Safety Hood and Smoke Protector. While smoke and other gasses rise toward ceilings, fresh air may be found at ground level. Morgan’s Safety Hood and Smoke Protector also consisted of a pouch of fresh air which could last 15 to 20 minutes.
On July 25, 1916, Morgan made national news for using the gas mask to rescue several men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel beneath Lake Erie. Three teams had earlier entered the tunnel to rescue workers, but failed to re-emerge. Morgan, his brother, and two volunteers, entered the tunnel and pulled out the workers and all three rescue teams. For this, he received recognition for heroism and his invention.
After the rescue, Morgan’s company received requests from fire departments around the country who wished to purchase the new masks. The Morgan gas mask was later refined for use by U.S. Army during World War I. In 1921, Morgan was awarded a patent for a Safety Hood and Smoke Protector. Two years later, a refined model of his early gas mask won a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety, and another gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
As word of Morgan?s life-saving inventions spread across North America and England, demand for these products grew. He was frequently invited to conventions and public exhibitions to demonstrate how his inventions worked. He used to throw tear and mustard gas into a room, and walk in it, wearing his mask to prove that it worked.
And the whole reason I wrote this post? Because I wanted to find out WHERE that first traffic light was in Cleveland. Still looking.