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Black History Month: Remembering Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan the Great Inventor

February is Black History Month, and today we remember Garrett Augustus Morgan, a prolific inventor whose creations include the modern-day traffic signal.

Early Life

Garrett Morgan was born in  Kentucky on March 4, 1877.  He was the seventh of eleven children born to the daughter of a Baptist minister, Elizabeth Reed, who was of Indian and African descent. His father, Sydney, was a former slave who was freed in 1863.  Sydney was the son of Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan. 

In his teens, Garrett Morgan moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked for a time for a wealthy landowner, performing handyman work.  With the money he earned, Morgan paid a private tutor for lessons to supplement his elementary school education. He then went on to work in a sewing machine factory, which is where his imagination and inventiveness came to light.  In the course of learning to repair sewing machines, Morgan studied their inner workings.  He eventually applied for and was issued a patent for an improved sewing machine and went on to open his own successful repair business.

Morgan married Mary Anne Hassek, and they had three sons.  He continued to explore and invent.

Early Inventions

G.A. MORGAN HAIR REFINING COMPANY:  In 1909, Morgan was working in a tailoring shop he opened with his wife, who was an experienced seamstress.  Morgan noticed a continuing problem – wool fabrics would get scorched by high-speed sewing machine needles. In order to combat this problem, Morgan created a chemical solution in hopes of reducing the friction caused by the needle.  In doing so, he noticed the chemicals made the cloth hair straighter. He went on to test the solution on the fur of his neighbor’s dog, and then on his own hair. The results led him to establish the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company.  He sold his chemical cream to African American clients, and the company enjoyed tremendous success.  This endeavor brought financial freedom to Morgan.  

GAS MASK PRECURSOR:  Morgan went on to create a breathing device credited to be the first modern-day gas mask.  It was to be used in the presence of smoke, gases, or other airborne particulates, providing safer breathing conditions to its user.  Morgan marketed the device to fire departments.  He would often wear the device in smoke-filled conditions in order to illustrate its efficacy.  The invention went on to become the prototype for the gas masks worn during WW I.  He earned first prize at the International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in New York City.

Morgan was aware of the racial tension that could hamper the sale of his breathing device, so during product demonstrations, he would pretend to be the assistant or sidekick to an actor playing the real inventor.  Firefighters and rescue workers accounted for brisk sales of the product.
Garrett Morgan and his brother had a chance to showcase the invention in a real-time catastrophe during the 1916 Cleveland Tunnel Explosion.  The tragedy resulted in workers trapped underground in a space full of poisonous fumes.  Morgan and his brother donned the breathing device and entered the tunnel, ultimately saving two lives and recovering four bodies before the rescue/recovery effort was ceased.
The publicity generated by Morgan’s heroic efforts ended up hurting sales of the device as the public became aware that Morgan was African American.  This knowledge resulted in many refusing to buy his products.  Morgan was nominated for a Carnegie Medal for his heroism but did not receive the award.  During his lifetime, he was never fully credited for his heroic acts, and some reports of the explosion went on to name different people as rescuers.

The Modern-Day Traffic Signal

The lack of acknowledgment for the heroism displayed by Morgan and his brother during the Cleveland Tunnel Explosion was undoubtedly disappointing.  However, Morgan was an avid observer and prolific inventor; he chose to focus on identifying and fixing problems.

Garrett Morgan was the first black man in Cleveland to own a vehicle, and he created a friction drive clutch. After witnessing a carriage accident at a dangerous city intersection in 1923, Morgan invented a new type of traffic light, a T-shaped pole with three settings, which included a warning light that alerted drivers that they would soon need to stop.  

On November 20, 1923, the United States Patent Office granted Patent No. 1,475,074 to Garrett Morgan for a three-position traffic signal light. This was not the first traffic light, but it was the first to include the important third position between Stop and Go.  Morgan sold the rights to his three-way light for $40,000 to General Electric.

Watch YouTube Video: Invention of the Traffic Light by Garret Morgan Was in Cleveland in 1923. In the following video, News 5 Cleveland reports about how Garret Morgan invented the traffic lights that came about.

Social Activism and Legacy

Morgan steadfastly supported the African American community throughout his lifetime. He was a member of the freshly-formed NAACP, was an active member of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, opened an all-black country club, and donated to Black colleges. In 1920, he started an African American newspaper titled Cleveland Call.   Shortly before his death on July 27, 1963, he was recognized by the United States government for the invention of his traffic signal.  Posthumously, he was honored as a hero of the Cleveland Tunnel Explosion.

Natomas Personal Injury Lawyer

I’m Ed Smith, a Natomas personal injury lawyer.  I can help answer your questions if you or a member of your family sustained injuries in an auto accident.  Please get in touch with my office at (800) 404-5400 or (916) 921-6400 so that I can offer free, friendly advice.

I’ve worked with Natomas residents for over 37 years.  Take a look at our website and the settlements and verdicts we have achieved. To read about what our clients have to say, please check out the following sites:

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Image by Siobhan Dolezal from Pixabay

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