The last time I ran a red light on a Cleveland street, I saw a flashing blue light in my rearview mirror. There had been a cop at the intersection who watched me go through. I was caught.
Really, it was more than the cop who caught me. An inventor named Garrett Morgan was the guy who got me. Many generations before the cop in his "blue light special" pulled me over because I had run a Cleveland red light which was going to cost me American greenbacks, Morgan had come up with the idea of a traffic light. The moment the idea struck him, he was watching a line of automobile traffic creating gridlock at an intersection. Pedestrians were running for their lives to stay out of the way. The year was 1923.
Morgan is celebrated in his hometown of Cleveland. At the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society, a replica of his first three-position traffic light is on display. It does not bear the red, green, and yellow lights, but it does announce in large letters when drivers would "Stop" and "Go."
"Right after the first world war and soon after, there were so many cars on the street that people began to realize there needed to be some kind of rules of the road," said Ed Pershey of the Cleveland History Center. "There were none," he added.
Morgan was a mechanically-minded man who dabbled with various kinds of inventions. When he hit upon the idea of a traffic light, it came just in time to unlock the gridlock. However, because he was black, he had difficulty getting through to businesses to build his patented idea. "Sometimes he had to disguise himself," said Pershey. "He couldn't appear at places to promote his idea because he was African American and people didn't want any part of that."
Still, Morgan persevered and is hailed as the inventor of the first three-position traffic signal. It needed a cop to operate it manually as the officer monitored where traffic was heaviest. The first signal went up at the intersection of East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue.
That was not far away from where the cop stopped me the other day for running a red light.