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

Interactive Map Shows Where Your House Would Have Been 750 Million Years Ago

Your neighborhood traveled a long way over several hundred million years to reach the spot it occupies today. To trace that journey over the ages, check out Ancient Earth, an interactive digital map spotted by Co.Design.

Ancient Earth, a collaboration between engineer and Google alum Ian Webster and Paleomap Project creator C.R. Scotese, contains geographical information for the past 750 million years. Start at the beginning and you'll see unrecognizable blobs of land. As you progress through the ages, the land mass Pangaea gradually breaks apart to form the world map we're all familiar with.

To make the transition even more personal, you can enter your street address to see where it would have been located in each period. Five hundred million years ago, for example, New York City was a small island in the southern hemisphere isolated from any major land mass. Around the same time, London was still a part of Pangaea, and it was practically on top of the South Pole. You can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through the eras or jump from event to event, like the first appearance of multicellular life or the dinosaur extinction.

As you can see from the visualization, Pangaea didn't break into the seven continents seamlessly. Many of the long-gone continents that formed in the process even have names.

[h/t Co.Design]

Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
The Body
11 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.


The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."


The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.


The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.


The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.


The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.


For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.


Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.


You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.


In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.


When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.


On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."


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