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How a Kentucky inventor found fame through tragedy

Garrett Morgan’s invention and sale of his gas mask was a great lesson on the human condition.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Next time you’re driving down the road, and a yellow traffic light gently warns you to start slowing down and prepare to stop—you can thank a Kentucky inventor whose ingenious mind and resilient spirit lead to two devices we still use today. 

For this installment of Kentuckiana Curiosity, we’re learning the story of Garrett Morgan, who is featured among other notable inventors from the Bluegrass at the Frazier History Museum.

Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky in 1877, and from very early in life made a lasting impression on those around him.

“From very early on, he established himself as a very bright child, very intelligent,” said Mick Sullivan, a curator at the Frazier. “He had this inventive mind."

Sullivan said Morgan was responsible for creating the gas mask and the traffic light in the early 1900s.

Credit: WHAS11

Morgan’s invention and sale of his gas mask was a great lesson on the human condition—not only because of the hard work required to create it, but also the hard (and unfair) work that Morgan specifically had to do to be taken seriously. 

As a Black man in turn-of-the-century America, he knew that the fire departments interested in buying his mask, predominantly in the South, would be reluctant to listen to a man of his race. So, Morgan hired a white actor to pretend to be him on stage and convince the fire departments to integrate his invention into their set ups.

RELATED: Kentuckiana Curiosity | Exploring the history, science and influence of our region

Morgan’s gas mask was vaulted into the national spotlight through a tragedy in Cleveland. Workers were digging a large tunnel underneath Lake Erie when the tunnel collapsed in the middle of the night trapping many inside amid poisonous gas.

“Garrett and his brother show up literally in their pajamas, and put on their gas masks and go in to save the people that are still alive,” Sullivan explained. “He was able to sell [the gas mask] to the United States Army right before World War I as chemical warfare became a thing.”

By the 1920s, Morgan - already a successful inventor in his own right - came across his next big invention by chance. 

He happened to witness a particularly bad traffic accident near his home and knew there had to be a better way to control traffic flow. Traffic indicators of the time simply had two notices: stop and go. Morgan knew a warning middle step could improve traffic and save lives.

His solution was the first three-position traffic light, shaped like a "T."

"You could say Garrett Morgan gave us the yellow light," Sullivan said.

Credit: WHAS11

As a curator at the Frazier, Sullivan said his exploration of history has changed the way he views seemingly everyday items.

“Sometimes when you dig back in the history of an object, what you find is a really fascinating person behind that object," he said. "Once I learned the story of Garrett Morgan, the traffic light was never just a traffic light anymore.”

Contact reporter Rob Harris atrjharris@whas11.com. Follow him onTwitter (@robharristv) andFacebook

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