As I began research on an invention that has, needless to say, revolutionized traffic safety, I wondered how often any of us thinks about how common, everyday items came into our lives. On my desk right now I have a paper weight, a coffee cup, a notepad, an ink pen, and facial tissue. All inventions. But how many of you know their creators' names? I'd look them up--I don't know them, either--but that's not why I'm here.


No, I'm here because of Garrett Morgan, a prolific inventor for whom a great deal of gratitude is owed, and not just for one particular device that has helped keep us safe for nearly a century.

Born in 1877 in Paris, Kentucky, Morgan--one of 11 children of freed slave Sydney Morgan, who was emancipated in 1863--would eventually relocate to Cincinnati in his teens and get work as a handyman. It was work that paid well enough for him to hire a tutor to expand his education; Morgan had only officially completed elementary school.

After working at a sewing machine factory, it wouldn't take Morgan long to come up with an IMPROVED machine which would lead him to opening his own sewing machine repair shop.


Garrett Morgan's mind, forever busy, would eventually lead him to create a breathing device that would evolve into the gas mask as we know it today.


In 1914, Morgan patented a breathing device, or "safety hood," providing its wearers with a safer breathing experience in the presence of smoke, gases and other pollutants. Morgan worked hard to market the device, especially to fire departments, often personally demonstrating its reliability in fires. Morgan's breathing device became the prototype and precursor for the gas masks used during World War I, protecting soldiers from toxic gas used in warfare. The invention earned him the first prize at the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in New York City.


Morgan was living in Cleveland by this time and was becoming aware of a situation that may not have presented much of a problem in his tiny Kentucky hometown.

In the early 1920s, he witnessed an auto accident that triggered the light bulb over his head, once again. At the time, traffic lights only had two positions--stop and go.

But Morgan's idea was to implement a THIRD position--an all-directional position--that would stop traffic BOTH ways before one or the other lines of vehicles had the right of way. In his patent application, Morgan wrote:

One of the objects of my invention is the provision of a visible indicator which is useful in stopping trac (sic) in all directions before the signal to proceed in any one direction is given. This is advantageous in that vehicles which are partly across the intersecting streets are given time to pass the vehicles, which are waiting to travel in a transverse direction; thus avoiding accidents which frequently occur by reason of the over-anxiety of the waiting drivers, to start as soon as the signal to proceed is given.

As we all know, the "third" position would become the yellow caution light, and the rest is history.

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His other inventions included a zigzag stitching device for sewing machines and personal hair-grooming items such as a curved-tooth pressing comb and certain hair-dying ointments.

Garrett Morgan died in 1963 but not before leaving a permanent legacy from which we have all benefited for 100 years.

I will likely never again sit at a traffic light again without his name coming to mind.

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