Garrett Augustus Morgan was born March 4, 1877 in Paris, Kentucky. He was the 7th of 11 children born to Elizabeth Morgan a half Indian half black minister's daughter and John Hunt Morgan a mixed race Confederate colonel. He married a Bavarian woman named Mary Anne Hassek, who was an experienced seamstress, and had 3 sons. Morgan was a member of the NAACP and the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. He donated to Negro colleges, opened a Black Country club, and in 1920 launched the Cleveland Call the African American newspaper.
With only a sixth-grade education he started working as a mechanic before he moved on to in sewing machine factories. He patented an improved sewing machine and started a sewing machine repair business in 1907. While looking for a way to improve the sewing machine more he accidentally created a hair straightening cream. He started the incredibly successful G. A. Morgan hair refining company. In 1914 he patented the safety hood a breathing device to help in the presence of smoke, gazes and other pollutants. His safety hood would be the prototype for gas masks used in WWI.
To help promote his invention in the south he hired a white actor to pose as the inventor while he pretended to be "Big Chief Mason" his assistant. His plan worked and he sold many safety hoods to firefighters and rescue workers. In 1916 he demonstrated the effectiveness of the hood when he and his brother saved two people and recovered four bodies when workers hit a natural gas pocket drilling a tunnel under Lake Erie. Due to racial discrimination his sales fell and he and his brother were never recognized for their heroics. Morgan went on to be the first black man in Cleveland to own a car and used his mechanical skills to develop a friction drive clutch.
On November 20, 1923, the U.S. Patent Office granted Patent No. 1,475,074 to Garrett Morgan for his three-position traffic signal. Though Morgan's was not the first traffic signal (that one had been installed in London in 1868), it was an important innovation nonetheless: By having a third position besides just "Stop" and "Go," it regulated crossing vehicles more safely than earlier signals had. He invented it after witnessing a traffic accident and seeing a need to prevent it from happening again.
Garrett A. Morgan died in Cleveland, Ohio on August 27, 1963 at the age of 86. Before his death he was honored for his traffic signal invention. Morgan was recognized for his heroics at Lake Erie. Morgan's inventions have saved and improved countless lives worldwide.
Garrett A. Morgan and stoplight images courtesy of the The Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio.