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Garrett Morgan: Inventor, Creator of the Stoplight Prototype

by Devyn Giannetti , Communications Specialist, Department of Communications

A traffic light at E 156th This month we are highlighting Cuyahoga County residents who have made an impact on our region and our country.

Many of the world’s most famous inventors only produced one major invention that garnered recognitions and cemented their importance to the development of society. But Garrett Morgan (1877-1963), one of the county’s most successful inventors, created two—the gas mask and the three-position traffic signal. And he developed them here in Cleveland, Ohio!

Morgan was formally educated to just a sixth-grade level, but fortunately he had a mechanical mind that allowed him to solve problems. And unlike most inventors, he was also a skilled entrepreneur.

After moving to Cleveland at 16, Morgan achieved nearly immediate success when he invented and patented the first chemical hair straightener, started his own sewing equipment repair business and even established a newspaper called The Cleveland Call, which later became the Call & PostThe Call & Post, also known as “The People’s Paper,” is widely regarded today as one of the most influential voices for African American residents throughout Ohio.

But Morgan’s biggest accomplishments came from his inventions—the first gas mask and the traffic signal.

He received a patent for the first gas mask invention in 1914. The idea for this product took off two years later when a group of workers got stuck in a tunnel below Lake Erie after an explosion. Morgan and a team of men wore the masks to help get them out, and once the rescue was successful, requests for the masks started pouring in.

Morgan’s other famous invention—the traffic signal—was also invented to help save lives. After he witnessed an accident on a roadway, Morgan decided something 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.

Morgan died in 1963 at the age of 83 and is buried in Lakeview Cemetery. His inventions are still used today, and now any time you are waiting at a stop light, you can think of Garrett Morgan!

To read more of our Black History Month Series, you can learn about George Peake and Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson.

Records that helped tell this story include the book “Red Light, Green Light: The Life of Garrett Morgan and His Invention of the Stoplight” by Dovie Davis Sweet. 

Garrett Morgan

Records pertaining to Garrett Morgan at the County Archives include information in the book “Black Americans in Cleveland” Russell H. Davis, the real estate appraisal cards for the home Morgan owned in Cleveland, a newspaper article from The Plan Dealer Sunday Magazine about Morgan and the book “Red Light, Green Light” by Dovie Davis Sweet.

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