A pioneer inventor, Garrett A. Morgan (1877-1963) was responsible for the creation of such life-saving inventions as the gas mask and traffic lights. In a long and productive career that spanned over 40 years, Garrett A. Morgan invented a variety of products and services, most of which are now called “safety features.” His creations, for many of which he held patents, brought him much fame and prosperity in his lifetime, and he was nationally honored by many organizations, including the Emancipation Centennial in 1963.
Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877. He was the seventh of eleven children born to Sydney Morgan, a former slave who was freed in 1863, and Elizabeth (Reed) Morgan. Leaving home at age 14 with only an elementary school education, Morgan eventually settled in Cleveland. He taught himself to repair sewing machines, working with a number of companies before opening his own sewing machine business specializing in 1907. The venture was successful, enabling Morgan to set up house in Cleveland, and in 1908, he married Mary Anne Hassek. Together they had three sons.
Eventually, Morgan opened his own tailoring shop, and it was here that he developed his first unique product. Like others in the clothing industry, Morgan had set out to solve a common problem in sewing woolen material: the sewing machine needle operated at such high speed that it often scorched the fabric. Morgan, who was working with a chemical solution to reduce this friction, noticed that the solution he was developing caused hairs on a pony-fur cloth to straighten instead. Intrigued, he tried it on a neighbor's dog, and when it straightened the hair on the dog's coat, Morgan finally tried the new solution on his own hair. The success of the solution led Morgan to form G. A. Morgan Refining Company, the first producers of hair refining cream.
Morgan experimented with new products throughout his life, inventing hat and belt fasteners and a friction drive clutch. His most significant invention, however, came in 1912, when he developed the "safety hood," a precursor to the modern-day gas mask. Morgan's patent application referred to it as a "Breathing Device." Granted a patent in 1914, the device, which consisted of a hood with an inlet for fresh air and an outlet for exhaled air, drew a number of awards, including the First Grand Prize from the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in New York City.
Although Morgan tested and demonstrated the use of the safety hood over the next few years, its most critical test occurred on July 24, 1916, during a tunnel explosion at the Cleveland Waterworks. The whole area was filled with noxious fumes and smoke, trapping workers in a tunnel under Lake Erie. Aided by his Breathing Device, Morgan went into the tunnel and carried workers out on his back, saving a number of men from an underground death.
For this act of heroism, Morgan received the Carnegie Medal and a Medal of Bravery from the city, and the International Association of Fire Engineers made Morgan an honorary member. Not much later, Morgan established a company to manufacture and sell the Breathing Device in response to numerous orders from fire and police departments and mining industries. Fire fighters came to rely upon the gas mask in rescue attempts, and the invention helped save thousands from chlorine gas and other noxious fumes during World War I.
Next, Morgan created the three-way traffic signal, a device that saves lives to this day. The idea to build the warning and regulatory signal system came to him after he witnessed a carriage accident at a four-way street crossing. Once again, Morgan made sure to acquire a patent for his product, this time in Britain as well as the United States and Canada. Eventually, Morgan sold the rights to his invention to the General Electric Company for $40,000.
In addition to inventing new and unique products Morgan was actively involved in promoting the welfare of African Americans. In 1920, therefore, he began publishing the Cleveland Call, a newspaper devoted to publishing local and national black news. Additionally, Morgan served as an officer of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, remaining an active member after it merged with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He developed glaucoma in 1943, losing most of his sight, and died in 1963.
Much has been written about Garrett Morgan, both regarding his achievements and his remarkable success as an African American scientist during the years of Jim Crow.
- Haber, Louis, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, Harcourt, 1970, pp. 61-72.
- Sammons, Vivian Ovelton, Blacks in Science and Medicine, Hemisphere Publishing, 1990, p. 176.
Updates by Matt Salter