I would like to share the fascinating story of arguably one of the most famous, prolific, and well-documented African American inventors, Garrett A. Morgan. Yet, it’s likely that most readers don’t know much, if anything, about him.
Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky on March 4, 1877, about a decade after the end of the American Civil War. His father, Sydney Morgan, had been enslaved and was probably the son of his enslaver, Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan. Garrett Morgan’s mother was Eliza Reed, who was the daughter of a Baptist minister and had both Native American and Black heritage. He attended a segregated school for six years before leaving home at age 14 to move to Cincinnati, Ohio. There he worked as a handyman for a wealthy White landowner and used some of his earnings to hire a tutor to continue his education. In 1895, he moved to Cleveland, where he built a reputation for repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. This experience sparked Morgan's interest in how things worked and fueled the development of his first invention—a belt fastener for sewing machines.
Morgan went into business for himself in 1907, establishing a shop to repair and sell sewing machines. Two years later, he opened a tailoring shop. During this time, Morgan experimented with a liquid that gave sewing machine needles a high polish to prevent them from burning fabric as they sewed. This led him to discover accidentally that the liquid could also straighten Black hair. He made the liquid into a cream and launched the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company to market it. He also made a Black hair oil dye and invented a curved-tooth comb for hair straightening. His company offered a complete line of hair-care products and he invested his profits into creating other inventions.
Inspired by the dangers that firefighters faced with smoke inhalation, Morgan invented a safety helmet to protect the wearer from smoke and ammonia. He introduced his “Breathing Device” in 1912, received US Patent 1,090,036 two years later, and then established the National Safety Device Company. He famously wore the safety helmet to descend into a gas-filled tunnel under Lake Erie to rescue workers and retrieve bodies after an explosion at the Cleveland Waterworks on July 25, 1916.
Despite the demonstrated need, Morgan had troubling selling the potentially life-saving equipment—many White people did not want to buy a product made by a Black inventor. So Morgan sought the advice of the incredibly wealthy and famous White financier J. P. Morgan (no relation), with whom he struck up a surprising friendship. J. P. suggested removing “Garrett A.” and calling it simply the “Morgan Safety Hood.” Garrett Morgan also tried other ways to increase sales, like hiring White actors to conduct demonstrations and make sales at firefighter conventions. Occasionally, Morgan himself put on a Native American costume and called himself “Big Chief Mason,” perhaps in a nod to his mother’s ancestry. These sales tactics worked. Not only did Morgan sell the hood to fire departments throughout the country, but he also won a contract with the US Navy. By 1917, a year after the Lake Erie disaster, this type of hood was standard equipment (along with British and French designs) for the US Army during World War I.
The theme of safety runs through other inventions by Morgan. American city streets of the 1910s–1920s, for example, were a chaotic mess of pedestrians, carriages, wagons, horses, bicycles, and early cars. Safety measures were nearly nonexistent, and accidents were common. Although traffic lights did exist at the time, Morgan saw a way to make them better. In 1923, he received US Patent 1,475,024 for his T-shaped, manually operated traffic signal that “stopped vehicles in both directions before changing the direction of traffic flow. This brief pause reduced the possibility of a collision caused by a vehicle continuing in motion after the STOP signal was displayed” ["Automobile Safety," America on the Move website]. The pause in traffic flow also provided a safe interval for pedestrians to cross the street. We are fortunate to have one of Morgan’s traffic signals in the National Museum of American History’s collections. Eventually, however, “the safety interval was standardized in a different traffic signal that superseded Morgan's design: the three-position signal with red, amber and green lenses" ["Automobile Safety," America on the Move website]. Apparently concerned that racism against Blacks would again dissuade potential buyers, evidence suggests that Morgan sold the patent to the General Electric Company for $40,000 (about $612,000 today); General Electric installed three-armed traffic signals in cities across the country.
In addition to his inventive achievements, Morgan co-founded the Cleveland Call, a weekly newspaper that was a predecessor of what became the city’s major African American newspaper, the Call and Post. Morgan also helped found the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, where he served as treasurer until it merged with the NAACP; he remained a lifetime member. Using earnings from the sale of his traffic signal patent, he bought a farm near Wakeman, Ohio, and, in an age of segregated clubs, established the all-Black Wakeman Country Club. In addition, Morgan was a member of Excelsior Lodge #11 of the Prince Hall Freemasons, a branch of North American Freemasonry for African Americans founded by Prince Hall in 1784 when he was denied membership in a White Masonic Lodge in Boston.
Morgan married Madge Nelson in 1896; they divorced apparently only two years later. In 1908, he married a White woman, Mary Hasek (1884–1968), with whom he had three sons: John, Garrett Jr., and Cosmo. Later in life, Morgan developed glaucoma and lost most of his sight as a result. The accomplished inventor—sometimes dubbed “The Black Edison”—died in Cleveland on July 27 (not August 27, as reported in some sources) in 1963, shortly before the celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation centennial—an event at which he was honored as a pioneering citizen. In 2005, Morgan was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for both his gas mask and three-way traffic signal.
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