By Brad Dison
In 1923, Garrett Morgan was driving along the busy streets of Cleveland, Ohio. By the age of 43, he had achieved the American dream which was characterized in the 1920s as the pursuit of material success, social status, and personal freedom. Garrett was the owner and editor of the Cleveland Call newspaper, but he came from humble beginnings. Garrett was born in rural Kentucky in 1877. His parents were former slaves who survived on the crops they grew. By the time Garrett turned 14, he realized he wanted more than to eke out an existence on the farm.
In 1891, the 14-year-old left Kentucky and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to look for work. His sights were not set too high. Garrett initially worked as a handyman. He had a mechanical mind and could build and repair any machine, even ones he had never seen before. Within a few years, Garrett left Cincinnati and moved to Cleveland. His ability to quickly repair machines enabled him to secure a position as a sewing machine repairman. By 1907, Garrett had saved enough money and opened his own sewing machine repair shop. Garrett’s reputation grew quickly based on the quality of his work and the speed at which he completed repairs. His business thrived. Two years later, Garrett added a garment shop to his business. In 1920, Garrett started the newspaper, the Cleveland Call, from scratch. Like his sewing machine repair shop and garment shop, the Cleveland Call was a huge success.
In 1923, when a lot of people in Cleveland still traveled by horse-drawn vehicles, bicycles, and streetcars, Garrett’s successes enabled him to purchase an automobile. One day in 1923, Garrett shared the busy road with all manner of vehicles including many other automobiles. At each major intersection, a policeman manually moved levers which raised and lowered metal signs. Painted on the signs were the words “GO,” or “STOP.” This type of traffic signal had been in use for decades and had saved countless lives.
As Garrett neared one of these major intersections, the policeman moved the levers and the signs changed. Specific details of the accident that followed vary depending on the source. Some sources assert that the collision was between a horse-drawn wagon and a car, and other sources claim that two cars were involved. What we know for sure is that there was a horrible collision which resulted in at least one person’s death, and Garrett witnessed the whole thing. Gruesome images of the collision replayed over and over in his mind. At night, he had nightmares of the collision. After a few days, Garrett began to take a different view of the collision. He began to analyze what he had witnessed to try to determine what had caused the collision. The traffic signals had worked as designed. The policeman moved the levers and one lane of traffic’s signal changed from “Go” to “STOP,” and, at the same moment, the signal from the crossing traffic changed from “STOP” to “GO.” Garrett found what he thought would solve the issue and, on November 20,1923, he received a patent for it. He eventually sold the rights to his invention to General Electric for $40,000.00, an enormous sum at the time.
Garrett’s invention evolved into something that we all still see and use today. Rather than slowing traffic down, Garrett’s invention makes most drivers want to increase their speed. Garrett’s invention added a “WARNING” sign to the two-sign traffic signal to warn drivers that the stop signal would soon change from “GO” to “STOP.” Garrett’s invention evolved into the yellow caution signal on traffic lights.
Source: History.com, “Garrett Morgan Patents Three-Position Traffic Signal.” HISTORY, 13 Dec. 2018, history.com/this-day-in-history/garrett-morgan-patents-three-position-traffic-signal.