Garrett A. Morgan was a prolific inventor who should be remembered for the safety devices he created. Both the safety hood (forerunner of a gas mask) he patented and the three-way traffic signal provided the basis for designs we still use today.
Garrett Morgan Early Life
Garrett Morgan’s parents were both slaves who belonged to Confederate general and cavalryman John Hunt Morgan. Garrett’s parents were freed when John Morgan was killed by a Union infantryman in 1864.
Once free, the couple settled in Paris, Kentucky, to raise a family. Morgan (1877-1963) was the seventh of what would be 11 children in the family.
Education for blacks was always difficult, but there was a black elementary school in their town, so Garrett and his siblings attended grade school for a time. (Because they were expected to help with the farming, black children only attended school for 2-5 months during the year.)
At age 14, Morgan left home, moving to Cincinnati where some of his older siblings lived. He worked as a handyman for a white landowner while he attempted to find a better job. After a fruitless search, he set out on his own to make the 250-mile trip to Cleveland to see what possibilities were there.
Started His First Business
In Cleveland, his first job was as a custodian, and from the he was hired to work at a sewing machine repair shop. At the turn of the century, sewing machines were in heavy use by homemakers and businesses as everything was still handmade. In the job with the sewing machine company, he proved adept at figuring out how things work and fixing them.
Morgan soon set up his own repair shop, and he soon had plenty of work. As the repair shop prospered, he added a small dress factory, and it, too, did well. Between the two shops, he had about thirty people on his payroll.
In 1907 he bought a house for his family and he encouraged his mother to come to live with them.
Success as an Inventor
Garrett Morgan became very good at inventing new devices and was able to profit from a number of them. Two of his most significant inventions were safety-related.
A safety hood was his first endeavor. He saw the difficulties firemen faced entering a burning building. The smoke was generally so bad that the firemen would go in for as long as they could, exiting when they were almost overcome with smoke. They would then have to wait to recover their breath before they could go back in again.
In 1912, Morgan started tinkering with a possible way to protect the men. At that time there was no good way to pump fresh air into a mask, but Morgan knew enough science to understand that warm air rose. Therefore, breathable air in a smoky room would be found nearer the floor. If he could pull the cleaner air into the safety mask, a person could likely remain longer to fight a fire.
The safety hood he created had two tubes. One tube sent fresher air from the floor level up into the breathing mask. The second tube used a valve to prevent the exhaled air from being inhaled again.
Selling the Safety Hood
Once he was satisfied with his product, he applied for a patent, gathered some investors, and established the National Safety Device Company to make and sell the hoods. The patent application stated that “fireman could enter a house filled with thick suffocating gases and smoke and would be able to breathe freely for some time.” (The official patent came through in 1914.)
Visiting trade shows was the best way to market a new product of this type. As the hood was introduced, the safety industry took note. Morgan and his company were awarded a gold medal at the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation.
This recognition boosted sales. Fire departments—including the very large New York Fire Department—bought hoods. When a bad subway fire occurred in early 1916, the firemen wore Morgan’s hoods to rescue passengers. As a result of the publicity, sales grew. Stock in the company went from $10 to $100 in 30 days.
Tragedy Brought about More Sales
An unfortunate tragedy in the Cleveland area put Garrett Morgan’s safety mask to another test. This time, the men proving the hood’s worth were Garrett and his brother, Frank.
In 1916, Cleveland Waterworks was building a tunnel beneath Lake Erie, and in Tunnel Number Five, there was an explosion. The crew boss knew 11 men were working down there but didn’t know if anyone survived.
Rescue teams quickly organized. The first was a seven-person team that entered the tunnel first. The smoke and gases were so thick that four men in the seven-person rescue party died shortly after descent.
With that, the second rescue party prepared to go down. This team was eleven people strong. They, too, met with disaster. After six of the men didn’t come back into the main part of the tunnel, the five remaining men knew they had to escape.
Morgan was Called
Someone remembered having seen Morgan’s safety mask demonstrated at a trade show. Since he was a local business owner, messages were quickly sent to him. Morgan and his brother arrived at the scene of the disaster equipped with several of the hoods.
After donning the safety hoods, the Morgan brothers descended into the tunnel. Their first encounter in the tunnel were the bodies of several who died attempting to rescue the others. With the masks on, the Morgans pushed their way down the tunnel to find a few of the rescue squad members who were still living.
Later, Morgan documented his experience in a letter:
“On entering [the tunnel], and from twenty to forty feet therefrom, being then [in] bare feet and alone [the other rescuers were further behind], I discovered a human body and then called for three men of the rescue party to come to [me] and directed that the body be placed upon a truck by the remaining members of the rescue party. In the meanwhile, [I] crept further into the tunnel and discovered…another human body which I discovered from groans to be alive… “
[Excerpt from a letter from Garrett Morgan to F.M. Morgan.]
The Morgan brothers aided by several volunteers made multiple trips, rescuing workers one by one. Unfortunately, none of the original 11 workers could have survived as the tunnel had collapsed on them. It was several weeks before those bodies could be retrieved.
While the white newspapers refused to acknowledge Garrett Morgan’s participation, the local community knew who had helped. He was honored with medals from Cleveland businesses and honorary memberships to certain societies, but discrimination still affected sales. Some buyers who learned the hoods were made by a black-owned business, chose to look elsewhere.
Morgan continued to promote his product but he learned from his experience that the hood needed to be demonstrated by one of his white employees.
Ultimately, the gas mask was purchased by police departments and mining companies all over the country.
While the U.S. military did not buy their safety hoods from Morgan’s company, the gas masks that were made for use in World War I were modeled after Morgan’s safety hood.
Automatic Traffic Signal
Morgan’s next idea was one that saved lives in a totally different arena—road traffic. In the early twentieth century, automobiles were just beginning to proliferate, and the roads weren’t really built for horses, carriages, wagons, and automobiles as well as cyclists and pedestrians.
In busy towns, police officers help direct traffic. Some communities had rudimentary two-way traffic signals; many did not.
Garrett Morgan was in the business district in Cleveland when he witnessed a bad accident. This got him thinking about ways to make traffic flow safer.
Not First Traffic Signal
While Garrett Morgan did not patent the first traffic signal, his contribution was a major change in the way these signals were viewed. Morgan saw the importance of adding a warning system to signal that the traffic pattern was going to change—like the yellow light on traffic lights today.
As he crafted his invention, he took a basic traffic pole device that alternated between an arm that said “Stop” and one that signaled “Go.” He felt that coming up with a “caution” signal that would help prepare the oncoming traffic. In his patent, he added extra arms to the traffic pole. When these were lifted, it indicated that the “Go” signal was about to change to “Stop.”
Two mounted electric lights above the pole made it possible for drivers to see the signal at night. He also created a “half-mast” setting that could be used during off hours. Just as we move forward into an intersection with a blinking yellow light, Morgan’s system also gave this type of “caution” sign.
In November 1923, he received his patent. Perhaps after his experience of facing discrimination when trying to sell the safety hood, he had no problem with selling the traffic system to General Electric when they offered him $40,000 for the invention. This was a considerable sum for the time.
And for GE, it was a wise move. By gaining a major patent for a traffic signal, they went on to dominate the traffic signal business.
Like other inventors, Morgan enjoyed solving all types of problems. During the early years when he was running his tailoring shop and sewing machine repair business, he noted that when his tailors stitched on heavy wool, the needle’s descent into the fabric sometimes caused so much friction that the wool was scorched. This meant the garment had to be re-sewn again.
Morgan experimented by wiping the needle with a chemical to reduce friction. His solution was successful, so he was pleased. But he discovered something else. When he wiped the needle off to make it less oily to handle, he happened to use a fuzzy fabric.
When he returned to the worktable, he saw that the fabric was smooth, no longer fuzzy. Curious about this possibility, he tried the mixture on the hair of a curly-coated dog. Indeed, in the spot where he tested the fluid, the dog’s coat became less curly. With that, he tried it on his own hair to see if he accidentally invented a hair straightener. The product worked and had no negative side effects.
Morgan began marketing it as G.A Morgan Hair Straightening Cream. It was made and packaged in Cleveland. (Later he went on to patent an electric hair-curling comb.)
Morgan Enters Newspaper Business
As Garrett Morgan continued successfully operating in the world of business, one of his frustrations was that African American business owners were rarely recognized. With that in mind, Morgan started The Cleveland Call in the 1920s and dedicated it to covering news of African Americans in the area. When he saw that Cincinnati needed the same thing, he joined forces with another business owner who ran The Cincinnati Post. The two newspapers combined and covered the appropriate news throughout Ohio.
He was very active in civic organizations and was a charter member of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. (This was later absorbed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.)
After an unsuccessful first marriage, he married Mary Anne Hasek, and they had three children. He enjoyed his family, and he loved hunting and fishing.
Kept Working Until the End
In 1943, he developed glaucoma and lost most of his sight, but this did not mean an end to his inventions. Among other things, he gained a patent for a fastener for women’s hats; for a round belt fastener, and eventually one more safety device: a pellet that could be added to cigarettes as they were manufactured. It would have extinguished the cigarette if a smoker fell asleep.
The year before he died, he donated a model of his traffic signal and his safety hood to Dr. Charles Wright, a Detroit physician. Wright maintained a collection of African American inventions, and they are now part of the collection in the Detroit Museum of American African American History
For more stories of black inventors, read Margaret Stewart Joyner who invented the hair-waving machine, and Bessie Blount Griffin, a physical therapist who invented a device to let people without limbs feed themselves.
If you’d like to read more stories about early roads and driving, check out “In the Days of Crank and Sputter.”