Garrett Augustus Morgan Sr., who was born March 4, 1877, in Paris, Kentucky, was an inventor, businessman, and community leader. He was also a Black man who wasn’t widely recognized for his breakthrough inventions. His most notable inventions were a three-position traffic light, the gas mask, and a chemical hair-processing and straightening solution.
1. Morgan was born to freed slaves
Morgan was the son of freed slaves. His father was Sydney Morgan, who was a son and freed slave of Confederate General John H. Morgan of the infamous Confederate cavalry the Morgan’s Raiders, according to Ohio Link. His mother, Elizabeth Reed, was also a freed slave. She was part Native American.
Morgan only received a sixth-grade education before moving at the age of 14 to Cincinnati, Ohio, in search of work.
2. His Career
Morgan spent most of his teenage years working as a handyman for a Cincinnati landowner. In 1895, he moved to Cleveland, where he began repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. According to reports, this is where his interest in inventions started. He developed a reputation for being able to repair various kinds of machines.
3. Morgan and his inventions
Morgan’s first invention was a belt fastener for sewing machines. Morgan also invented a zigzag sewing attachment for sewing machines.
In 1907, Morgan opened his own sewing machine shop.
By 1912, he received his first patent, and in 1913 he incorporated hair care products into his growing list of patents. He launched the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company. The company sold hair care products such as his patented hair straightening cream, hair coloring, and a hair straightening comb he had invented.
In 1914, he received a patent for his smoke hood design when he launched the National Safety Device Company. Today, it s known as a gas mask.
He invented the safety hood smoke after witnessing firefighters struggling to withstand the suffocating smoke they encountered in the line of duty.
At first, many would not buy the mask from him because he was Black, so he hired a white actor to take credit rather than revealing himself as its inventor.
And he set up skits across the country to sell the device.
Morgan disguised himself, filled a tent with toxic smoke, strapped on his breathing device, and entered the tent. He would wait for nearly half an hour before emerging safely to a surprised and impressed audience, Scientific American reported.
Many large cities nationwide ultimately bought Morgan’s smoke helmets for their fire departments, hospitals, asylums, and ammonia factories He also developed later models that incorporated an airbag that could hold about 15 minutes of fresh air.
His invention gained national recognition when he led a rescue that saved several men’s lives after a July 24, 1916, tunnel explosion under Lake Erie.
But the publicity around his heroic fete backfired, and when the national news contained photographs of him, officials in a number of southern cities canceled their existing orders when they discovered he was Black, ThroughtCo. reported.
Despite the setback, Morgan kept inventing, and he invented the three-position traffic signal. After seeing a car accident, Morgan decided a device was needed to keep cars, buggies, and pedestrians from colliding. Before, lights just had go (green) and stop (red) lights. He realized there needed to be a warning light, a third light.
One of his last inventions was a self-extinguishing cigarette.
He helped start the Cleveland Association of Colored Men in 1908, according to Case Western Reserve University. He was actively involved in that organization until it merged with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
5. Morgan, later in life
He developed glaucoma and, by 1943, was functionally blind. Although he had poor health for the rest of his life, Morgan continued to work on his inventions. He died on July 27, 1963, at age 86, and was buried at the Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.
PHOTOS: Inventor Garrett Morgan. (Blackinventor.com). Images of Gas Mask and Traffic Light. (Courtesy of Ferris State University & Wikimedia Commons)