What We Can Learn About Empathy From the Inventor of the Yellow Traffic Light

Note: The following is an extended excerpt from my upcoming book, Empathy Every Day: How to Listen, Learn, and Lead with Empathy. It is filled with 366 daily stories, vignettes, bits of research, and quotes on empathy (yep, that’s one for each day). 

If you visited Cleveland in 1923, the streets were filled with all kinds of bicycles, horse-drawn wagons, cars, and people walking. Most of the roads at this time had no traffic signals, but the large intersections had manually operated signals that alternated between “stop” and “go”.

Every day 46-year-old inventor and newspaperman Garrett Morgan would drive up and down Cleveland’s crowded streets watching accident after an accident take place at these intersections. Because they switched back and forth between Stop and Go with no interval in between, drivers had little time to react when the signal changed. As you can imagine, this led to many collisions between vehicles that both had the right of way when they entered the intersection.

Morgan could have easily kept driving, safe in his car, as most did during this time period. But, he had never been one to see a problem he couldn’t fix, especially when it could help others. Morgan, a child of two former slaves, was born in Kentucky in 1877. When he was just 14 years old, he moved north to Ohio to look for a job. First, he worked as a handyman in Cincinnati; next, he moved to Cleveland, where he worked as a sewing-machine repairman. In 1907, he opened his own repair shop, and in 1909 he added a garment shop to his operation. The business was an enormous success, and by 1920 Morgan had made enough money to start a newspaper, the Cleveland Call, which became one of the most important black newspapers in the nation.

One day Morgan witnessed a particularly bad accident, and he thought there might be a solution. If he designed an automated signal with an interim “warning” position—the ancestor of today’s yellow light—drivers would have time to clear the intersection before crossing traffic entered it.

The signal Morgan patented was a T-shaped pole with three settings. At night, when traffic was light, it could be set at half-mast (like a blinking yellow light today), warning drivers to proceed carefully through the intersection.

Though Morgan’s was not the first traffic signal (that one had been installed in London in 1868), it was an invention born out of empathy for those impacted by the flawed two-signal system. The third position (our Yellow light today) helped keep crossing vehicles safe in between the “stop” and “go” signals.

By creating the yellow light, Morgan demonstrated empathy in creating an invention that would go on to save millions of lives and transform transportation forever. He eventually sold the rights to his invention to General Electric for $40,000 (about $600,000 in today’s money) so that it would have a greater impact and be easier to scale across the country.

Many confuse empathy (feeling with someone) with sympathy (feeling sorry for someone), and even researchers who study it have muddied the waters with many definitions. But the author of The Empathy Effect, Dr. Helen Riess does a good job of untangling that and explaining the many dimensions of empathy.

“Empathy,” she writes,” involves an ability to perceive others’ feelings (and to recognize our own emotions), to imagine why someone might be feeling a certain way, and to have concern for their welfare. Once empathy is activated, compassionate action is the most logical response.”

This wasn’t the first or last time Morgan used his empathetic nature to invent a life-saving device.

The Safety Hood That Saved Lives

On July 24, 1916, there was a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie. Before Morgan arrived, two previous rescue attempts had failed. The attempted rescuers had become victims themselves by entering the tunnel and not returning. Morgan was roused in the middle of the night after one of the members of the rescue team who had seen a demonstration of his smoke hood.

Garrett Morgan invented a safety hood smoke protection device after seeing firefighters struggling from the smoke they encountered in the line of duty in 1912, but after selling around the country it still hadn’t caught the attention of many fire departments.

All that changed when he arrived on the scene still wearing his bedclothes and brought his brother Frank and four of the hoods with him. Morgan, his brother, and two other volunteers bravely went into the tunnel using the smoke hood. When he emerged carrying a victim on his back, others joined in, hurrying to save as many people as possible.

Morgan personally made four trips into the tunnel during the rescue, and his health was affected for years afterward from the fumes he encountered there. Cleveland’s newspapers and city officials initially ignored Morgan’s act of heroism as the first to rush into the tunnel for the rescue and his key role as the provider of the equipment that made the rescue possible, and it took years for the city to recognize his contributions.

Later, in 1917, a group of citizens of Cleveland tried to correct for the omission by presenting him with a diamond-studded gold medal. Despite all this, after the heroic rescue Morgan’s company received order requests from fire departments all over the country.

Morgan’s empathy again turned into compassionate action. Without action, we cannot see empathy. Without visible compassion, we can only feel sympathetic.

True empathy is defined in what we do, not only what we feel.

That’s a lesson we all can learn from Garrett Morgan.

Join 76,000 other learners (and teachers)

And get new posts every week by email.

Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply