Not only did Garrett Morgan invent a 3-way traffic stoplight, but millions of soldiers, firefighters and SWAT cops around the globe can thank him for inventing the first gas mask.
Garrett patented his “safety hood and smoke protector” in 1914. Two years later, when an explosion trapped workers in a tunnel under Lake Erie, someone remembered his device. Morgan and volunteers, wearing the untested “gas masks,” descended 250 feet into the mine shaft and rescued the men.
News spread about Morgan’s dramatic rescue, and orders for the inhalator started pouring in from mining companies and fire departments. Morgan and a few partners started the National Safety Device Company to sell the mask. The design was remodeled for military use and is credited with protecting thousands of soldiers from chlorine “mustard” gas attacks during World War I.
Garrett Morgan was born in Paris, Ky., in 1877 and moved to Cincinnati when he was 15. Mechanically gifted, he found work in a sewing-machine repair shop. Within a few years, he opened his own shop and a tailoring business, employing more than 30 people. He also invented a hair-straightening crème by accident. While experimenting with various chemicals and oils to better lubricate his sewing-machine needles, he noticed than his concoction straightened the fur on a coat in his shop. More tests – on a dog and his own hair – proved it wasn’t a fluke. Always the entrepreneur, Morgan started marketing one of the first hair-straightening products for Blacks.
Morgan had moved to Cleveland by the time of the Lake Erie accident, and he was wealthy enough to own a car. In those days, cars, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, pedestrians and stray animals could clog the streets at the same time. Two-way traffic signals were usually operated manually by a policeman standing or perched in a tower in the intersection. Accidents were very common. It was after witnessing yet another crash that Morgan had his most famous inspiration.
He invented the 3-position traffic signal and won a patent for it in 1923, in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. His traffic light was a T-shaped pole with three positions: stop, go and a third signal (walk) that stopped all traffic so pedestrians could cross.
He eventually sold his patent rights to General Electric for a reported $40,000. It’s true that other men created and marketed traffic signals. But Morgan was the first to apply for a patent that could mass produce the device. His patented “traffic management technology” was widely used throughout North America until it was replaced by the red, yellow and green-light traffic signal used today. For this, he was recognized by the U.S. government for his contributions and achievement.
 Federal Highway Administration