Who Invented the Traffic Light?

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Alexandra Maloney
Updated on Apr 27, 2022 · 3 min read
Have you ever been stopped at a
red light
and found yourself wondering—who invented the
traffic light
, anyway? If you’re curious about
car history
, or more specifically in this case, traffic light history, we’ve got you covered. 
We’ll get into more detail later. But to give you a brief rundown now, the person who invented the traffic light we see today was Garrett Morgan. According to
, Morgan patented the three-position traffic signal Nov. 20, 1923. 
This means, the anniversary of this crucial road fixture is just around the corner—and that there’s no better time than now to brush up on its history. 
The three-position traffic signal we see on the roads today was invented by Garrett Morgan in 1923.

The first traffic light

Before we get to Garret Morgan and his advancements for the automotive world, let’s back up a little bit to the first traffic light ever. 
Believe it or not, traffic lights have been around since the 1800s. During that time, people used the traffic light for the same general purpose that we do today—to control road congestion. The only difference was that the congestion on the roads then was due to horse-drawn carriages and
According to
, the first ever traffic light, designed by John Peake Knight, was gas fueled. It was installed in London, England on Dec. 10, 1868, right outside of the House of Parliament. At the time, the traffic light only had two signals: green for go and red for stop. While the colors were visible during the day, police officers would have to manually light red or green to signal cars during the evening.
The gas traffic light was definitely a step in the right direction at controlling chaos and
accidents on the roads
, but it still wasn’t a foolproof solution. The world needed a long-term fix to truly combat the problem.

Garrett Morgan, who invented the traffic light we know today 

Enter inventor Garrett Morgan onto the traffic light scene. Born in Kentucky in 1877, Morgan was a child of two formerly enslaved people. At age 14, he moved to Ohio and began working a series of different jobs throughout his teenage and young adult years, including handyman, repairman and shop owner. 
Morgan eventually had enough money to start a newspaper in Ohio,The Cleveland Call, which grew to be one of the most prominent Black-owned publications. Morgan even invented the first iteration of the gas mask, according to
Scientific American
Due to his many accomplishments, Morgan was wealthy enough to
own a car
, which weren’t as widespread at the time as they are today. After witnessing a horrific accident on the road, Morgan had an idea for the traffic light: Instead of going directly from go to stop, he thought there should be a warning sign in the middle. 

The evolution of the traffic light

When Morgan was on the roads, the traffic light had evolved from gas to electric. The first electric traffic light was actually installed right in Morgan’s home, Cleveland, Ohio, on Aug. 5, 1914, according to
While it was beneficial that traffic lights didn’t have to be physically maintained by police officers anymore, the advancement didn't stop the car accidents from happening, due to the poor design.  
Morgan put his idea of adding a third warning signal to the traffic light to use and began outlining a new design. What he came up with was a T-shaped pole, equipped with three lights to give drivers a warning before completely stopping. 
Morgan was granted a patent for his work on Nov. 20, 1923. The three-signal electric traffic light began being installed all over the world and from there, the rest is history. 

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