Garrett Morgan possessed a rare gift of creativity that allowed him to produce outstanding inventions which have a tremendous impact on society.
Garrett Morgan was born on 4 March in Paris, Kentucky, in 1877. He was the seventh child of 11 born to Sydney and Elizabeth Morgan. At the age of 14, Garrett decided to move to Ohio in search of better education. He first settled in Cincinnati and later moved to Cleveland, where he worked as a handyman to make a living.
Working with sewing machines
It was during his time in Cleveland that he learned about the inner workings of sewing machines, which led him to open his own sewing machine store in 1907. Here, he sold new machines and repaired old ones.
In 1908, Garrett married Mary Anne Hassek, and they had three sons. He opened a tailoring shop a year later selling coats, suits, and dresses. While working there, he made an important discovery that led to his first invention. He noticed that the needle of a sewing machine moved so fast that it often scorched the thread of woollen materials due to friction. To solve this problem, he developed a liquid that could polish the needle, reducing friction.
Finishing up, Morgan wiped the liquid from his hands onto a piece of pony-fur cloth. Later when he returned to his workshop, he saw that the fibres on the fabric were now standing straight up. Morgan theorised that the fluid had actually straightened the fibres. To confirm his theory, he applied some of the liquid to the hair of a neighbour’s dog, an Airedale.
The fluid straightened the dog’s hair so much that the neighbour, not recognising his own pet, chased the animal away. Morgan then decided to try the fluid on himself. He applied it to small portions of his hair first, then to his entire head. Morgan’s experiment was successful. He had invented the first human-hair straightener.
He marketed the product under the name the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Cream and sold it through his G. A. Morgan Refining Company, which became a very successful business.
In 1912, Morgan developed another invention in a completely different category from the hair straightener. He called it a Safety Hood and patented it as a Breathing Device. The world later came to know it as a Gas Mask. The Safety Hood consisted of a hood worn over a person’s head from which emanated a tube that reached near the ground and allowed in clean air.
The bottom of the tube was lined with a sponge material that would help filter the incoming air. Another tube allowed the user to exhale air out of the device. Morgan intended the device to be used “to provide a portable attachment which will enable a fireman to enter a house filled with thick, suffocating gases and smoke and to breathe freely for some time therein, and thereby enable him to perform his duties of saving life and valuables without danger to himself from suffocation.”
The National Safety Device Company, with Morgan as its General Manager, was set up to manufacture and sell the device, and it was demonstrated at various exhibitions across the country. The device won first prize at the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation, and Morgan was awarded a gold medal. While demonstrations were good for sales, the true test of the product would come only under real life circumstances.
That opportunity arose on 24 July 1916 when an explosion occurred in a tunnel being dug under Lake Erie by the Cleveland Water Works. The tunnel quickly filled with smoke, dust and poisonous gases and trapped 32 workers underground. They were feared lost because there were no means of safely entering the tunnel and rescuing them.
Fortunately, someone at the scene remembered Morgan’s invention and ran to call him at his home, where he was relaxing. Garrett and his brother Frank quickly arrived at the scene, donned the Safety Hood and entered the tunnel. After a heart-wrenching delay, Garrett appeared from the tunnel carrying a survivor on his back, as did his brother seconds later.
The crowd erupted in staggering applause, and Garrett and Frank re-entered the tunnel, this time joined by two other men. While they were unable to save all of the workers, they were able to rescue many who would otherwise have certainly died.
Reaction to Morgan’s device and his heroism quickly spread across the city and the country as newspapers picked up on the story. Morgan received a gold medal from a Cleveland citizens group and a medal from the International Association of Fire Engineers, which also made him an honorary member.
Soon, orders came in from fire and police departments across the country. Unfortunately, many of these orders were cancelled when it was discovered that Morgan was Black. Apparently, many people would rather face danger and possibly death than rely on a lifesaving device created by a Black man. Nonetheless, with the outbreak of World War I and the use of poisonous gases therein, Morgan’s Safety Hood, now known as the Gas Mask, was utilised by the United States Army and saved the lives of thousands of soldiers.
Although he could have relied on the income his Gas Masks generated, Morgan felt compelled to try to solve the safety problems of the day. One day he witnessed a traffic accident when an automobile collided with a horse and carriage. The driver of the car was knocked unconscious, and the horse had to be destroyed.
Morgan set out to develop a means of automatically directing traffic without needing a policeman or worker present. He patented an automatic traffic signal that could be “operated for directing the flow of traffic” and providing a clear and unambiguous “visible indicator.”
Satisfied with his efforts, Morgan sold the rights to his device to the General Electric Company for the astounding sum of $40,000.00, and it became the standard across the country. Today’s modern traffic lights are based on Morgan’s original design.
At that point, Morgan was honoured by many influential people around him, including such tycoons as John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan (after whom he named one of his sons.) Although his successes had brought him status and acclaim, Morgan never forgot that his fellow Blacks still suffered injustices and difficulties. His next endeavour sought to address these as he started a newspaper called the Cleveland Call (later renamed the Call and Post.) He also served as the treasurer of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, which eventually merged with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and ran as a candidate for Cleveland’s City Council.
In his later years, Morgan developed glaucoma and lost 90% of his vision. He died on 27 July 1963, and because of his contribution, the world is undoubtedly a much safer place.