A portrait of Garrett Morgan and the diagram of his traffic signal from his patent application.
Garrett Morgan patented his traffic signal in 1923.

By some accounts, inventor Garrett Morgan’s most famous creation, the three-position traffic signal, was inspired by a gruesome collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn cart at a Cleveland intersection. He may have also had a personal interest. According to his granddaughter, he was one of the first Black men in the city to own a car and “always loved sweet-looking rides.”

Whatever the reason, Morgan — by then an accomplished innovator who billed himself as “the Black Edison” — did what he did best: saw a need and filled it. His new signal, the first that could stop traffic in all directions, was a major contribution to safety at a time when deaths on the roads were skyrocketing in cities across the country.

On Saturday, the Willoughby Historical Society will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Morgan’s historic invention with a re-dedication of a replica. Morgan tested his signal in Willoughby before patenting it and selling it to General Electric for $40,000 (the equivalent of nearly $724,000 today).

A brilliant career launched in Cleveland

The traffic signal was the capstone of a brilliant career, documented in 2015 by journalist Margaret Bernstein in a book for Teaching Cleveland. A Kentucky native, Morgan arrived in Cleveland in 1895 at age 18. He took the only job he could get at the time, sweeping floors in a sewing machine factory. There, he taught himself to sew and to repair the machines and then went on to start his own business.

His motto, according to Bernstein’s account, was: “If a man puts something to block your way, the first time you go around it, the second time you go over it, and the third time you go through it.”

His patented inventions included an improved sewing machine, a hair straightener, and a “safety helmet” that allowed firefighters to breathe in smoky buildings. The U.S. Army used a version of Morgan’s safety helmet in World War I.

In 1920, Morgan founded the Cleveland Call newspaper, a predecessor of the Call & Post.  He died in 1963 at age 86. His headstone at Lakeview Cemetery reads: “By his deeds, he shall be remembered.” In 2022, his legacy inspired the name of Signal Cleveland.

The Willoughby Historical Society’s event will be held Saturday at noon at Willoughby Municipal Court, 4000 Erie St. Morgan’s granddaughter Sandra Morgan, Garrett Morgan III and Garrett Morgan IV are expected to attend.

Signal background

Director of the Editors’ Bureau (he/him)
Frank is an award-winning reporter and former editor at alternative newsweeklies in Cleveland and Philadelphia. He has worked with writers of all experience levels on beat reporting, features, investigative projects and books.