With only an elementary school education, Garrett Morgan began his career as a sewing-machine mechanic. He went on to patent several inventions, including an improved sewing machine and traffic signal, a hair-straightening product, and a respiratory device that would later provide the blueprint for WWI gas masks. The inventor died on 27 July 1963, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Born in Paris, Kentucky, on 4vMarch 1877, Garrett Morgan was the seventh of 11 children. His mother, Elizabeth Reed, was of Indian and African descent, and the daughter of a Baptist minister. His father, Sydney, a formerly enslaved person freed in 1863, was the son of John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate colonel. Morgan’s mixed-race heritage would play a part in his business dealings as an adult.
Following the momentum of his business success, Morgan’s patented sewing machine would soon pave the way to his financial freedom, albeit in a rather unorthodox way: In 1909, Morgan was working with sewing machines in his newly opened tailoring shop — a business he had opened with wife Mary, who had experience as a seamstress — when he encountered woolen fabric that had been scorched by a sewing-machine needle. It was a common problem at the time since sewing-machine needles ran at such high speeds. In hopes of alleviating the problem, Morgan experimented with a chemical solution in an effort to reduce friction created by the needle and subsequently noticed that the hairs of the cloth were straighter.
After trying his solution to good effect on a neighboring dog’s fur, Morgan finally tested the concoction on himself. When that worked, he quickly established the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company and sold the cream to African Americans. The company was incredibly successful, bringing Morgan financial security and allowing him to pursue other interests.
In 1914, Morgan patented a breathing device, or “safety hood,” providing its wearers with a safer breathing experience in the presence of smoke, gases and other pollutants. Morgan worked hard to market the device, especially to fire departments, often personally demonstrating its reliability in fires. Morgan’s breathing device became the prototype and precursor for the gas masks used during World War I, protecting soldiers from toxic gas used in warfare. The invention earned him the first prize at the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in New York City.
In 1916, the city of Cleveland was drilling a new tunnel under Lake Erie for a fresh water supply. Workers hit a pocket of natural gas, which resulted in a huge explosion and trapped workers underground amidst suffocating noxious fumes and dust. When Morgan heard about the explosion, he and his brother put on breathing devices, made their way to the tunnel and entered as quickly as possible. The brothers managed to save two lives and recover four bodies before the rescue effort was shut down.
Despite his heroic efforts, the publicity that Morgan garnered from the incident hurt sales; the public was now fully aware that Morgan was an African American, and many refused to purchase his products. Adding to the detriment, neither the inventor nor his brother were fully recognized for their heroic efforts at Lake Erie — possibly another effect of racial discrimination. Morgan was nominated for a Carnegie Medal for his efforts, but ultimately wasn’t chosen to receive the award. Additionally, some reports of the explosion named others as the rescuers.
Written by: Mandy Law