Meet the Inventor of the First Gas Mask and the Three-Position Traffic Light

Garrett Morgan, inventor of the gas mask and three-way traffic light

Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in 1877 in an almost all-Black community outside of Paris, Kentucky. He was an inventor, businessman and influencial political leader.
During his teenage years, he was forced to quit his studies and work fulltime as a handyman for a landowner in Cincinnati. In 1895, Morgan began repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer and became interested in how things worked. During this period, Morgan developed his first invention: a belt fastener for sewing machines. A decade later Morgan developed his own line of sewing machines, and in 1909 he opened a shop called Morgan's Cut Rate Ladies Clothing Store.

His legacy of inventions and products included hair care products like his patented hair straightening cream, a hair coloring, and a hair straightening comb. One of his most important inventions was the smoke hood, which he acquired the patent for in 1912. He later founded a company called the National Safety Device Company in 1914 to market it.

His safety hood device (now referred to as a gas mask) was simple and effective, whereas the other devices in use at the time were generally difficult to put on, excessively complex, unreliable, or ineffective. His invention became known nationally when he led a rescue mission that saved several men's lives after a 1916 tunnel explosion under Lake Erie.

Later in 1922, Morgan created another important invention - the three-position traffic signal. Other "stop and go" traffic signals had already been invented, but Morgan's was the first to feature a third interim "warning" position to give drivers more time to clear the intersection. Today, a similar feature is known as the yellow light.