8 Garrett Morgan: Inventor of the Safety Hood and the Three-Light Traffic Signal

KC Celestine

[The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is: 8.85]

Garrett Morgan was born in 1877 in Paris Kentucky to freed slaves. His mother, Elizabeth Reed, was of Native American and African descent. His father, Sydney, was of European and African descent. Morgan’s race would have a big effect on his career.

Picture of Garrett Morgan
Garrett Morgan

He only went to school until the sixth grade, but was a mechanical genius. As a teen he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and learned the inner workings of sewing machines while working in various factories. He obtained a patent for an improved sewing machine and opened his own repair business. His business was a success.

Picture of the three-way traffic signal patent
Garrett Morgan’s patent for a traffic signal.

In 1914, Morgan patented a breathing device, or “safety hood.” The breathing device became the prototype and precursor for the gas masks used during World War I. To deal with resistance he faced from buyers, he hired a white actor to pose as the inventor, and Morgan would pose as the inventor’s sidekick. He would be disguised as a Native American man and enter areas unsafe for breathing while wearing his hood. This tactic was successful for sales of the device, especially from firefighters and rescue workers.

In 1916 while in Cleveland, workers hit a pocket of natural gas while drilling a new tunnel under Lake Erie. This led to an explosion and trapped workers underground. Morgan and his brother made their way to the tunnel and used the breathing devices to save two lives and recover four bodies. This resulted in the public learning of his race. Not only would sales be hurt after the public learned he was African American, but neither Morgan nor his brother would be fully recognized for their heroic efforts at Lake Erie. There are some reports of the explosion that named others as the rescuers.

Morgan was a social activist throughout his life. He was a member of the newly formed NAACP, donated money to Negro colleges, open an all-Black country club, and launched an African American newspaper in Cleveland in 1920.

Morgan was the first black man to own a car in Cleveland. In 1923, after witnessing a carriage accident at an intersection, he created a new kind of traffic signal, one with a warning light to alert drivers that they would need to stop. He patented his traffic signal and later sold the rights to General Electric. He only made $40,000 from the sale, but his invention led to the modern three-way traffic lights used today.




Writing Prompts

Narrative: Running red lights is dangerous. Traffic lights help everyone, people driving, people on bikes, and people walking. Write a letter that you can submit to your city counsel for the importance of adding a traffic light or cameras to a busy intersection. Make sure you include at least three facts about traffic signals. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.3

Informative: Imagine you are walking and want to cross a busy intersection. Write about how the traffic light affects how you would cross and the traffic around you. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.3

Persuasive: Garrett Morgan had to use his multiracial background, hire a white actor, and demonstrate the effectiveness of his safety hood in order for people to purchase it. Many people are judged by their race, age, and more. As a student you have first hand experience of what is happening at your school. Think of a problem at your school. Write a persuasive essay noting the problem, giving a solution, and why you are qualified to suggest these solutions. Give relevant facts, details, and information. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.2.B

Creation/Application: Garrett Morgan used his mechanical genius to learn the inner workings of sewing machines. What he learned, he used to have a successful repair business. Everyone has a special talent. Record a short video of you showing off your special talent. This can be anything from performing magic card tricks, cooking, playing an instrument, singing, drawing and more. In the video explain when you first discovered or started your special talent, how you learned this skill, how it has grown, and explain how others can learn to do it as well.

Works Cited

Biography.com Editors. “Garrett Morgan Biography.” The Biography.com, 2 Apr. 2014, www.biography.com/inventor/garrett-morgan. Accessed 7 Jun 2022.

PBS. “Who Made America? Garrett Augustus Morgan.” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/morgan_hi.html. Accessed 7 Jun 2022.

Wikipedia. File:Morgan signal.jpg, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Morgan_signal.jpg. Access 7 Jun 2022.


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