The National Business League

Founded by Dr. Booker T. Washington – August 23, 1900



Garrett Morgan

Smoke hood and traffic signal

Two accidents brought inventor Garrett Morgan into the national spotlight, but it was his determination, resourcefulness, and dedication to public service that made him a success.

Born around 1877, Garrett Morgan grew up in the hamlet of Paris, Kentucky. One of several children in a rural community, Morgan’s early life did not afford many opportunities for formal education, but he was ambitious and determined. As a young adult, Morgan settled in Cleveland, Ohio, taking a position sweeping floors at a dry goods factory for $5 per week. Cleveland was a city on the rise, and Morgan was prepared to take advantage of any opportunity.

While working in Cleveland’s growing textile industry, Morgan witnessed the dangers presented by heavy, chemical-laden smoke found in industrial fires. In 1914, he was granted his first two patents for a “breathing device,” a smoke hood that allowed firefighters, or workers in other poorly ventilated spaces, to enter a smoke-filled space for a period of time without suffocating. The smoke hood was a commercial success, and Morgan took an active role in marketing his product. Initially, Morgan obscured his race due to societal bias against Black inventors, but when used the hood to save several lives during an industrial disaster, his identity was revealed. He was lauded as a hero by many, but some customers went as far as to cancel their orders.

Despite facing inequities and prejudice, Morgan continued to invent and find ways to make his community safer and better for all. After witnessing a traffic accident in the early 1920s, he received a patent for a mechanical traffic signal that contained an intermediary step between “stop” and “go” that cleared the intersection. Modern drivers see this idea in practice every day in the form of the caution, or “yellow light.”