Black Pioneers In The Automotive Industry: Garrett Morgan

Black History Month is upon us, the perfect time to highlight pioneers in the automobile industry and inventions that have changed the world that we live in today. Allow us to introduce you to the man who changed the way we drive, and helped to provide us with an extra step in safety when it comes to the three signal traffic light, Garrett Morgan

When we think of traffic nowadays, we think of bumper to bumper traffic in the Fort Pitt Tunnels or the sounds of honking on Route 28. We don’t  think of roadways full of horse-drawn carriages, streetcars, large automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians, but that is exactly what the roadways looked like over a hundred years ago. Chaos was an understatement, so there were a heavy amount of accidents, especially since there was only a two signal traffic light controlled manually by a traffic attendant. Without an interval between stop and go, traffic patterns didn’t have time to adjust to the signals, creating a lot of confusion and often fatal circumstances.  

While Garrett was in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1923, he witnessed a terrible accident between a horse-drawn buggy and an automobile. That terrible moment inspired a brilliant idea to help prevent moments like this from happening again. Garrett got to work creating a mechanical traffic signal that contained an intermediate step between ‘stop’ and ‘go’ that could clear the intersection before the signal changed. This is what we know today as the ‘yellow light’.  

On November 20th, 1923, the US Patent Office granted Garrett a patent for his improved traffic signal invention. The original design was a T-shaped pole, with three arms that controlled the flow of traffic through an intersection. The ‘caution’ signal occurred when all three arms were raised upright, indicating that traffic should halt in all directions. The original design could also be adjusted to traffic density as well.  

The patent was such a hit that General Motors purchased Garrett’s traffic signal patent in 1923 for $40,000. The equivalent of that value today is $700,000. During that time, electricity was being integrated into city infrastructures, so General Motors took the opportunity to take Garrett’s idea and include it in the electric traffic signals. Currently we have over 300,000 signalized intersections across the United States, all based on a solution that Garrett Morgan created. 


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