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Step into the early 20th century, an era defined by segregated streets and limited opportunities. Yet, amidst all the challenges, one man, Garrett Agustus Morgan, Sr., emerged as a beacon of innovation. His invention of the Three-Position Traffic Signal not only transformed chaotic intersections, but also shattered racial barriers. This is more than just a story of traffic management; it’s a testament to the untapped potential that blooms when diversity and ingenuity collide.

November 20, 2023 marked the 100th anniversary of the invention of the Three-Position Traffic Signal by Garrett Morgan, a Black man born in Paris, KY. Garrett Morgan was the seventh of 11 children. His mother, Elizabeth Reed, was of Indian and African descent, and the daughter of a Baptist minister. His father, Sydney, was the son of a Confederate general in the American Civil War and a former enslaved person, freed in 1863. Garrett moved to Cincinnati, OH at the age of 14, working as a handyman, and at about age 18, he moved to Cleveland, OH. Years later, Garrett became the first Black man in Cleveland to own a car.

Garrett was a voracious inventor who went on to patent several things, including an improved sewing machine, a hair-straightening product, a respiratory device that would later provide the blueprint for WWI gas masks, and of course, a traffic signal.

As automobiles began to appear in US cities in the 1900s, there was no system for regulating speed. Traffic problems were horrific, as motorized cars began inter-mixing with horse-drawn carriages. In the early 1920s, the number of cars on the streets rapidly increased. Sharing the streets with pedestrians and carriages, and driving unpredictably, automobiles caused alarming numbers of deaths and crashes. There was no signage, traffic lights, traffic cops, driver’s education, defined lanes, street lighting, brake lights, driver’s licenses or posted speed limits. Police tried to control busy intersections, but they were somewhat hidden by heavy traffic. In 1923, over 18,000 Americans died from vehicle accidents, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

Cleveland had already installed the nation’s first electric traffic signal in 1914 at Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street, which consisted of four pairs of red and green lights that served as stop-go indicators, each mounted on a corner post. As a resident of Cleveland, Garrett Morgan witnessed a terrible collision between a horse-drawn carriage and a vehicle at a busy intersection. Inspired by the desire to increase safety and decrease accidents, Mr. Morgan created a new system, the first traffic signal with a warning stage in it: the forerunner of today’s yellow light.

The signal Morgan patented was a T-shaped pole with three settings. At night, when traffic was light, it could be set at half-mast (like a blinking yellow light today), warning drivers to proceed with caution through the intersection. It was manually operated with a crank to raise, lower, and rotate three tall arms, which were marked “Stop” on some sides and “Go” on others. Besides “Stop” and “Go”, the system first stopped traffic in all directions, providing an interval to give drivers time to stop, or continue proceeding through the intersection. The signal operator could indicate to drivers on one crossroad to stop before signaling drivers on the other to go.

Garrett Morgan received a patent for his invention in 1923. Soon after receiving the patent, Morgan sold the signal’s rights to General Electric Company (GE) for $40,000—which is equivalent to more than $700,000 today. From there, using Morgan’s concept of a three-position system, GE went on to monopolize the manufacturing of traffic signals in the United States, using the same traffic signal technology. GE later replaced Morgan’s technology with the red, yellow, and green-light traffic signals that are used around the world today.

We salute Garrett A. Morgan, a Black inventor, whose zest and ingenuity helped pave the way toward immensely improving traffic safety for pedestrians and motorists throughout the world.