Philip Graden

Garrett Morgan: Mr. Stop, Slow Down and Go

Have you ever been in a rush to work, making good time, cruising through every green light until one light turns yellow and you face every driver’s dilemma: speed up or slow down?

We’ve all been there.

But next time you encounter that yellow light, here’s the backstory on how this life-saving invention came to be.

Garrett Morgan was born in 1877, only a few years before the first automobile was introduced to the world. His family had 11 children, money was tight, and he had no formal education, so the odds were stacked against him. Nevertheless, Morgan was a quick study and made the best of his situation through hard work and craftiness.

At just 14 years old, Morgan moved to Cincinnati to work as a handyman. He later moved to Cleveland where he created two groundbreaking game-changers.

The first was The Cleveland Call, today known as the Call and Post—a trailblazing African-American newspaper.

The second was the invention of the modern day three-way traffic light.

Morgan’s success as a handyman and business owner led him to become the first African-American car owner in Cleveland. At the time, streets were crowded with all types of transportation: bicycles, horse drawn wagons, streetcars, and pedestrians.

After witnessing a catastrophic accident, Morgan committed to finding a way to mitigate the traffic that clogged Cleveland’s streets and put the lives of vehicle owners and pedestrians at risk.

He took matters into his own hands and developed his own version of 19th century smart infrastructure—the first electric, automated, three-way traffic light, a pre-cursor to today’s connected infrastructure.

While previous manual versions of the traffic light existed, Morgan’s creation added a warning light to alert drivers they would need to prepare to stop—a warning light we know today as the yellow light.

With his invention, the modern day three-way traffic light was born. Just before Morgan’s death in 1963, he was honored by the U.S. government for his traffic signal invention. Today, he is recognized for his remarkable success as an African-American inventor during the Jim Crow era.

Smart infrastructure spurs innovation that modernizes and connects communities. Thanks to Garrett Morgan, this revolutionary piece of smart infrastructure changed the way we travel and move.