People

Garrett Morgan, Inventor of the Traffic Light

Ever driven through a traffic light and wondered who invented it? I know, it’s not a very common thought process. Unlike me who’s dreaming about stop signs and traffic lights, you’re probably trying to rush through the amber light hoping the shawarma restaurant doesn’t close before 11. Perhaps that’s the best form of relationship you have with a traffic light.

Do you know that the first automated traffic light was invented by an African American with Indian roots? He is Garrett Morgan, inventor of the gas mask, friction drive car clutch and of course our modern traffic lights.

Morgan was born to a biracial African-Indian Mother in Kentucky in 1877. Starting his life as a handyman, Morgan made his fortune when he obtained a patent for the sewing machine. He opened his own shop that made suits, coats and dresses. Morgan also ventured into journalism, establishing the newspaper Cleveland Call. He also opened G.A Morgan Hair Refining Company which targeted African American markets. This was a huge success, giving him a lot more financial freedom to invest into various business.

After witnessing a terrible accident between a horse drawn carriage and a car, Garrett Morgan invented three way traffic light and filed a patent for it in 1923. He eventually sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000. He is also credited with inventing the gas mask that still helps firefighters to this day.

Beside his inventions, Garrett Morgan was a spirited community leader. He founded the Cleveland Association of Colored Men which later amalgamated with NAACP. Having served as treasurer, he donated numerous time to African-American colleges, thus playing a huge role in educating the African-American community in Cleveland. He also opened an all-black country club in Cleveland.

The accomplished inventor and business mogul died in July 27, 1963. Just before his death, Morgan was honored by the U.S government for his traffic signal invention. The international association of Fire Chiefs awarded Morgan a gold medal for inventing the gas mask.

So the next time you walk past a traffic light, remember that it was an invention of a coloured man during the Civil Rights era.

– Vinoth Kumar (www.traffickumar.ca) is a licensed paralegal based in Toronto. After a career as a case manager, legal assistant and law clerk in various industries, Kumar founded TK Traffic Legal Defense. He is affectionately called “Traffic Kumar” by some people in Scarborough.