Posted by the Office of Public Affairs
Many of the world’s most famous inventors only produced one major invention that garnered recognition and cemented their prominent status. But Garrett Augustus Morgan (1877-1963), one the country’s most successful African-American inventors, created two – the gas mask and the three-position traffic signal.
Born in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to former slaves, Garrett A. Morgan was only formally educated to a sixth-grade level. Fortunately, like many great inventors, Morgan had an innate mechanical mind that enabled him to solve problems. And, unlike most other inventors, he also was a skilled entrepreneur.
After moving to Cleveland, Ohio, at the age of 16, Garrett Morgan’s business sense and strong work ethic led him to almost immediate success. He invented and patented the first chemical hair straightener, started his own sewing equipment repair business, and even established a newspaper – the Cleveland Call.
But Morgan’s most prolific accomplishments came in his role as an inventor. He received a patent for the first gas mask invention in 1914, but it wasn’t until two years later that the idea really took off. When a group of workers got stuck in a tunnel below Lake Erie after an explosion, Morgan and a team of men donned the masks to help get them out. After the rescue was a success, requests for the masks began pouring in.
Similarly, Garrett Morgan’s other famous invention – the traffic signal – was also invented to help save lives. After witnessing an accident on a roadway, Morgan decided a device was needed to keep cars, buggies and pedestrians from colliding. His traffic signal was designed to stand on a street corner and notify vehicles and walkers whether they should stop or go. After receiving a patent in 1923, the rights to the invention were eventually purchased by General Electric.
Prior to his invention, most traffic signs in use had only two positions: stop and go. These manually operated two-position signals were an improvement over uncontrolled intersections, but because they allowed no interval between stop and go commands, collisions at busy intersections were common.
Morgan's signal was a T-shaped pole that featured three positions: stop, go, and an all-direction stop position. This third position halted traffic in all directions before vehicles were allowed to proceed on either of the intersection's roads. This feature not only made it less dangerous for motorists to travel through intersections but also allowed pedestrians to cross safely.
Morgan died on July 27m 1963 at the age of 83. His inventions are still used today. The original prototype of the three-position traffic signal is on display at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum and the Safety Hood is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.