Life-saving road safety device from a KY inventor

As I began researching an invention that, needless to say, revolutionized road safety, I wondered how often each of us thinks about how common, everyday objects have come into our lives. On my desk right now I have a clipboard, a coffee mug, a notepad, an ink pen, and some tissues. All inventions. But how many of you know the names of their creators? I would look for them–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 to whom we owe much gratitude, and not just for one particular device that has kept 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 move to Cincinnati as a teenager and find work as a handyman. It was a job that paid well enough for him to hire a tutor to further his studies; Morgan had only officially finished elementary school.

After working in a sewing machine factory, it was not long before Morgan came up with an IMPROVED machine that would lead him to open his own sewing machine repair shop.


Garrett Morgan’s ever-busy mind would eventually lead him to create a breathing apparatus that would evolve into the gas mask as we know it today.


In 1914, Morgan patented a breathing apparatus, 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, particularly to fire departments, often personally demonstrating its reliability in the event of a fire. Morgan’s breathing apparatus became the prototype and precursor to the gas masks used in World War I, protecting soldiers from the poison gas used in warfare. The invention won him first prize at the Second International Safety and Sanitation Expo in New York.


Morgan was living in Cleveland at the time and was aware of a situation that might not have been a problem in his small Kentucky hometown.

In the early 1920s, he witnessed a car accident that again triggered the light bulb above his head. At the time, traffic lights only had two positions: stop and go.

But Morgan’s idea was to set up a THIRD position – an all-direction position – that would stop traffic IN BOTH directions before either line of vehicles had priority. In his patent application, Morgan wrote:

One of the objects of my invention is to provide a visible indicator which is useful in stopping stage fright (sic) in all directions before the signal to continue in one direction is given. This is advantageous in that vehicles partially crossing intersecting streets have time to overtake vehicles waiting to move in a cross direction; thus avoiding accidents which frequently occur due to the excessive anxiety of waiting drivers, to start as soon as the signal to proceed is given.

As we all know, the “third” position would become the yellow warning light, and the rest is history.


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

Garrett Morgan passed away in 1963, but not before leaving a permanent legacy that we have all enjoyed for 100 years.

I’ll probably never sit at a red light again without his name coming to mind.

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