Welcome to America Comes Alive!, a site I created to share little-known stories of America's past. These stories are about Americans - people just like you - who have made a difference and changed the course of history. Look around the site and find what inspires you. Kate Kelly
The Inventor of the Three-Light Traffic Signal: Garrett Morgan

The Inventor of the Three-Light Traffic Signal: Garrett Morgan

Despite the number of traffic lights you have stopped for in the last week, chances are good that you never thought about who invented it. We tend to take for granted these everyday items.

This morning I was preparing for my “transportation” class at UCLA’s Osher Institute when I came upon the fact that Garrett Morgan (1877-1963) was given the first patent on a three-signal traffic light, and he was the son of two former slaves. Wow. Reading about the invention had already sent me looking for more information but the “son of two former slaves” sent me over the top with excitement as a black businessman navigating through the world of business in the early 20th century is a great story.

I’ll give you a peek at some of what I learned. Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky and went on to a successful career in business. He ran several businesses in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1920 he became a newspaperman, and the Cleveland Call became one of the best-known black papers of its day.

Car ownership was far from commonplace in the 1920s but Morgan owned a car so he was aware of the safety issues involved in driving. In that day there were few rules of the road, resulting in many accidents. Morgan came up with the concept of a three-way signal: red for stop, green for go, and an all-ways stop to give pedestrians a safe opportunity to cross. Wonderful.

If you’d like to read more stories about early roads and driving, check out “In the Days of Crank and Sputter.”

Morgan also invented several other items, and I’ll write more about him in February when we celebrate Black History Month.

Tomorrow I’ll begin sharing stories of Thanksgiving.



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