Sunday, August 24, 2008

WHO INVENTED THE FIRST TRAFFIC LIGHTS?


We'd often heard Ohio boast of being home to the first traffic light (as well as numerous U.S. presidents), but we drew a blank when it came to the name of the inventor. Luckily, a search on "traffic light inventor" provided the details. As it turns out, Ohio's claim is only partially true.
The very first traffic light was a revolving gas lantern with red and green lights installed in a London intersection in 1868, before the advent of automobiles. A later version of the traffic light based on railroad signals was installed in Detroit, Michigan, in 1920. But we have Garrett Augustus Morgan to thank for the modern version and first patent of this traffic-stopping invention.
The son of former slaves, Morgan was born in 1877 in Kentucky. He later moved to Cincinnati and then Cleveland, where he owned and operated a sewing-machine repair business and earned quite a reputation as a technician. A multi-talented businessman, Morgan went on to establish the newspaper The Cleveland Call.
In early 20th century Cleveland, as in other major U.S. cities, the roads were clogged with pedestrians, bicycles, animal-drawn wagons, and those newfangled automobiles. There were no traffic laws to speak of, and chaos ruled the streets. Accidents were frequent. After witnessing one such traffic accident, Morgan felt compelled to improve the situation. The result? The precursor to the modern traffic signal, patented on November 23, 1923.
Not quite your contemporary street light, "The Morgan traffic signal was a T-shaped pole unit that featured three positions: Stop, Go and an all-directional stop position. This 'third position' halted traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross streets more safely." His light was used throughout North America before being replaced by today's familiar red/yellow/green traffic lights. Morgan eventually sold the rights to his invention to General Electric. He also received a government citation for his invaluable invention.
Morgan's genius was not limited to the world of traffic control; later inventions included a zigzag device for sewing machines, the first chemical human hair straightener, and a gas mask (which he used to rescue several men trapped in an underground tunnel after an explosion).

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