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The Signal

(Un)Common Knowledge

By Deshone HallPublished 3 years ago 3 min read

It was a sunny fall day in October 1923, an automobile chugs down a dirt road moving at a steady pace. At the same time a horse driven coach is headed towards the automobile from the right side. The automobile and the horse drawn coach collide causing a horrible accident at a corner intersection. At the intersection the horse is killed instantly, the car is damaged and it won’t crank, the carriage is turned over and people are injured, and stuff from the coach is scattered across the road. It took days to clean up after the accident. A witness to this accident was greatly grieved and very upset, he decided something had to be done. He pondered over the accident and why it happened and how this tragedy could not happen again.

This witness was a man born to former slaves, parents of eleven children. He eventually became an inventor and an entrepreneur. He opened a repair shop and a garment shop and he also started a newspaper called the Cleveland Call which was one of the most influential black newspapers in America. This man was named Garret Morgan. Morgan was inspired to invent the traffic light after witnessing a crash between an automobile and a horse drawn carriage. Morgan wanted to improve traffic safety.

Garrett Morgan was fairly wealthy during his time and he was the first black man to own a car in Cleveland. During this time automobiles were thriving along with previous vehicles such as bicycles, horses and buggies, streetcars and pedestrians. Cities were blooming across America and life was picking up at a faster pace in the city streets and traffic was growing. Cleveland’s downtown area had narrow streets and clogged intersections. The traffic lights only switched between stop and go with no between intervention, this gave drivers very little to react between stop and go. After Morgan witnessed the horrific accident he designed a signal to warn your position between stop and go which is now the signature yellow light. Garrett Morgan received a U.S. patent in 1923 on November 20th for the traffic signal we now use today, red stop, yellow slow down and green go.

Garrett Morgan only had an elementary education and he started off as a sewing machine mechanic. Morgan became very skilled in how machinery worked. Morgan has patented other inventions such as the breathing mask, he redesigned the sewing machine and he also invented a hair straightening product. His breathing device became the prototype for the gas mask. Because Garrett Morgan was a black man, many buyers would not purchase his products especially in the south. Morgan eventually hired a white male actor to pretend to be the inventor and Morgan would pretend to be the sidekick in order to get sales from customers. This tactic proved to be successful for Morgan especially when soliciting breathing devices to paramedics and fire fighters.

Garrett Morgan did something heroic in 1916, there was an explosion in Cleveland due to workers hitting a natural gas pocket while drilling a tunnel and toxic fumes were released and workers were trapped in the tunnel. Morgan and his brother put on his breathing devices and rescued 2 of the workers and recovered four bodies before they were forced to stop their rescue efforts. When people realized that Morgan was the inventor and not the sidekick, they refused to purchase his products and Morgan and his brother never got recognition for their rescue efforts.

Despite Morgan’s and his brother’s recognition as heroes, he continued to master his invention skills while actively supporting his community and becoming a member of NAACP and the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. Morgan also became a philanthropist he donated to Negro colleges and he started a Black Country club. Before Morgan died he was honored for his invention of the traffic light and was declared a hero during the Cleveland explosion by the United States government.


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Deshone Hall

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    Deshone HallWritten by Deshone Hall

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