Garrett Morgan, the Prolific Inventor Behind the 3-Phase Traffic Signal

Even if you’ve never heard his name, you’ve likely benefited from Garrett Morgan's most famous invention. In 1923 Morgan patented his three-position traffic signal, a device that revolutionized road safety. His traffic sign was just one of many accomplishments Morgan achieved during his 86-year lifetime. In addition to being a prolific inventor, he also solidified a lasting legacy as a local hero, businessman, and activist, all with only a sixth-grade education.

Garrett Morgan was born in Claysville, Kentucky on March 4, 1877 to parents Eliza Reed Morgan and Sydney Reed Morganboth former slaves. Garrett developed a passion for learning at a young age. Though he would have spent most of the year working on his family's sharecropping farm, Garrett preferred his time at school. Unfortunately, his formal education ended with his graduation from the sixth grade.

Morgan knew there wasn’t much opportunity for him on his parents’ farm in Kentucky, so at the age of 14 he moved north to Cincinnati in search of employment. He found his first job in Ohio working as a handyman for a local landlord. It was at this point that he had the chance to advance his education, and he hired a tutor to improve his grammar skills. While his handyman job was definitely a step up from sharecropping, it still lacked the room for growth and creativity he desired. After four years in Cincinnati, Morgan moved to Cleveland with no place to stay and only 10 cents to his name.

Life in Cleveland was rocky at first. During his first few days, he slept in boxcars in an industrial part of town and searched for work during the day. Even up north, he found that most white people weren’t willing to hire a black man. His first job in the city was sweeping the floors of a dry goods store for $5 a week. From there, he moved on to work as a sewing machine adjuster for women’s clothing manufacturers. This was the first job Morgan had that appealed to his knack for tinkering and problem-solving. He soon became the go-to person whenever a sewing machine was on the fritz, and he even invented new parts for the devices to help them run more smoothly.

This experience gave Morgan the skills he needed to open his own sewing machine sales and repair shop in 1907. A year later, he married a white seamstress by the name of Mary Anne Hasek. (She was Morgan's second wife; he had first married at age 19 and divorced two years later.) Even though his interracial union to Mary Anne wasn’t met warmly by either of their families, his second marriage turned out to be much happier and more successful than his first. Life was good for Morgan: his business was so popular that by 1909 he had enough money to open his own tailoring factory. He purchased a home in Cleveland’s garment district and became the first black man in the city to own a car. Despite all his success, Morgan never stopped thinking of new ways to improve the world around him.

In 1912 he developed his first major invention: the safety hood. As a young man he had witnessed firefighters struggling to breathe in smoke-filled spaces. He noticed that smoke tended to rise, so the device he invented drew and filtered clean air from the ground (or from a bag of clean air) through a long tube and up to a heat-resistant hood around the wearer’s head. After securing a patent for the product in 1914, Morgan took his invention on the road. 

He traveled from state to state demonstrating the device’s effectiveness to various fire departments around the country. It was purchased by over 500 cities in the North, but Morgan had a tougher time selling his safety hood to Southern audiences. He found a way around this by occasionally hiring white actors to pose as the product’s inventor in his place. Morgan was even known to dress up as an Indian chief named "Big Chief Mason" during these demonstrations. After being introduced by the white actor, his character would stand inside a smoke-filled tent for up to 25 minutes at a time. When he finally stepped out unharmed, the crowds were astounded.

His invention garnered even more attention in 1916 following a Cleveland construction catastrophe. A tunnel that was being built 250 feet below Lake Erie collapsed after an explosion, leaving dozens of workers trapped and choked by harmful fumes. The local police were wise enough to call Morgan and request he bring his safety hoods to the site. He arrived at the scene with his brother and they descended into the tunnel along with two other volunteers, all of whom were equipped with the masks. Thanks to his invention, they were able to successfully retrieve workers and bodies from the rubble, but it was one of the white volunteers who had been with him who received all the glory. It was only after years of fighting for proper recognition that Morgan was finally awarded his due accolades from the city. Today, a Cleveland lakefront water treatment plant is named for him.

In the meantime, Morgan's invention was making history overseas. World War I introduced a deadly new type of weapon to the battlefield: toxic gases. Morgan sold his safety hoods to the U.S. Navy, and they were also worn by Army soldiers to protect against chlorine and mustard gas attacks deployed by German forces. Future gas masks manufactured for British and American troops reflected aspects found in Morgan's original design.

The safety hood was just one of several inventions Morgan would develop. While experimenting with solutions to help sewing needles stitch more smoothly, he inadvertently created a chemical hair straightener he dubbed the G.A. Morgan Refining Cream. This opened the door for him to start his own hair care business, whose products included black hair dye for aging men, a hair-pressing comb for women, hair oil, and hair grower. Then, in 1920, Morgan switched gears. He used the money he had earned from his entrepreneurial endeavors to found The Cleveland Call, a newspaper dedicated to reporting events relating to the African American community. The types of stories featured in The Call were often impossible to find in mainstream outlets of the time, and the paper soon became one of the most important black publications in the nation.

Three years later, Garrett Morgan filed the patent for what would become his most influential invention. After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan was inspired to devise a more effective traffic signal for busy intersections. The existing models were all manually operated, and they switched abruptly between stop and go without allowing traffic any time to slow down. Morgan solved this issue by introducing a third sign to the mechanism that would signal the transition. When General Electric caught wind of the invention, they offered to buy his patent for $40,000. Knowing that the company could do more for his idea than he had the means to, Morgan sold it. The invention would pave the way for the red-yellow-and-green traffic lights that are used on roads around the world today.

On top of his industrious career as an inventor, Morgan left a vibrant legacy as a social activist and leader in the black community. He helped form the Cleveland Association of Colored Men and established an all-black country club on his farm in Wakeman, Ohio. He also dabbled briefly in politics when he ran for the Cleveland City Council in 1931, but his campaign was unsuccessful.

Even after developing glaucoma in his old age, Morgan didn't stop inventing. He designed a pellet for cigarettes that would automatically extinguish them if a smoker fell asleep, and he invented and patented a de-curling comb at the age of 79. Garrett Morgan died in Cleveland on July 27, 1963 at the age of 86. He is buried in the city's Lakeview Cemetery, among fellow historical heavyweights Eliot Ness, John D. Rockefeller, and president James Garfield.

Additional Sources: Garret Augustus Morgan: Businessman, Inventor, Good Citizen

Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]


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