Garrett A. Morgan. The great African American inventor of life-saving breathing device (gas mask) and traffic lights.

Garrett Morgan, one of the greatest African-American inventors with patents, including hair-straightening product, a breathing device, a revamped sewing machine and a three-way traffic signal.

Image result for Mary Anne Hassek
With only an elementary school education, Garrett Morgan, born in Kentucky on March 4, 1877, 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 July 27, 1963, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Born in Paris, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877, Garrett Morgan was the seventh of 11 children. His mother, Elizabeth (Reed) Morgan, was of Indian and African descent, and the daughter of a Baptist minister. His father Sydney Morgan was a former slave freed in 1863. (Most records lists his father as Sydney Morgan, the 1863 freed slave while few records list Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan as the father). 

When Morgan left home at age fourteen with only an elementary school education, Morgan was able to pay for more lessons from a private tutor and eventually settled in Cleveland. He taught himself to repair sewing machines, working with several companies Learning the inner workings of the machines and how to fix them, Morgan obtained a patent for an improved sewing machine before opening his own business specialising in sewing machine sales and repair in 1907. The venture was successful, enabling Morgan to set up a home in Cleveland, and in 1908, he married Mary Anne Hassek. Together they had three sons.

Hair Refining product
Following the momentum of his business success, Morgan’s patented sewing machine would soon pave the way for another invention 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, it was here that he developed his first unique product.                                                                                                     Like other people in the clothing industry, Morgan was trying to solve a prevalent problem inherent in sewing woollen material. The sewing machine needle operated at such high-speed that it often scorched the material. Morgan, who was working with a chemical solution to reduce this friction, noticed that the solution he was developing caused hairs on a pony-fur cloth to straighten instead. Intrigued, he tried it on a neighbour’s dog, and when it straightened the hair on the dog’s fur, then Morgan finally tried the new solution on his own hair. The success of the solution led Morgan to form G. A. Morgan Refining Company, the first producers of hair refining cream. He began to sell his products to African Americans all over.

Breathing Device (Gas Mask)
 Morgan most significant invention, however, came in 1912, when he developed the “safety hood,” the precursor to the modern-day gas mask. Morgan’s patent application for the contraption referred to it as a “Breathing Device.” Granted a patent in 1914, the device, which consisted of a hood with an inlet for fresh air. 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, and The International Association of Fire Engineers made Morgan an honorary member. Not much later, Morgan established a company to manufacture and sell the Breathing Device in response to numerous orders from fire and police departments and mining industries. Fire fighters came to rely upon the gas mask in operation

There was some resistance to Morgan’s devices among buyers, particularly in the South, where racial tension remained palpable despite advancements in African-American rights. In an effort to counteract the resistance to his products, Morgan hired a white actor to pose as “the inventor” during presentations of his breathing device; Morgan would pose as the inventor’s sidekick, disguised as a Native American man named “Big Chief Mason,” and, wearing his hood, enter areas otherwise unsafe for breathing. The tactic was successful; sales of the device were brisk, especially from firefighters and rescue workers.

Cleveland Tunnel Explosion
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.

Three-way traffic signal

In 1923, Morgan created the three-way traffic signal, a device responsible for saving thousands of lives over the years. The idea to build the warning and regulatory signal system came to him after he witnessed a carriage accident at a four-way street crossing in the city. Once again, Morgan made sure to acquire a patent for his product, this time in Britain as well as the United States and Canada. Eventually, Morgan sold the rights to his invention to the General Electric Company for $40,000.

 Other Inventions
In a long and productive career that spanned over forty years, Morgan continued to experiment with new products, inventing such things as hat and belt fasteners and a friction drive clutch. As an inventor, Morgan focuses his attention on identifying and problem and finding a solution to it, this entrepreneurship mindset made him turns his attention to many things which made him one of the greatest African American inventor of all time. 


In 1920, Morgan began publishing the Cleveland Call, a newspaper devoted to publishing local and national black news. As an officer of the Cleveland Association of Coloured Men, he was able to use the newspaper to publish issues to do with black people in the area. Morgan remained an active member after it merged with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). 

Social Activism
Outside of his inventing career, Morgan diligently supported the African-American community throughout his lifetime. He was a member of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, was active in the Cleveland Association of Coloured Men, donated to Negro colleges and opened an all-black country club. Additionally, in 1920, he launched the African-American newspaper the Cleveland Call (later named the Call and Post).

Death and Legacy
In a long and productive career that spanned over forty years, Garret A. Morgan worked diligently to create new products and services to enhance safety in modern-day living. His creations, for many of whom he held patents, brought him much fame and prosperity in his lifetime, and he was nationally honoured by many organisations, including the Emancipation Centennial in 1963.

Morgan improved and saved countless lives worldwide, including those of firefighters, soldiers and vehicle operators, with his profound inventions. His work provided the blueprint for many important advancements that came later, and continues to inspire and serve as a basis for research conducted by modern-day inventors and engineers.

Morgan developed glaucoma in 1943, and lost most of his sight as a result. The accomplished inventor died in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 27, 1963, shortly before the celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation centennial, an event he had been awaiting. Just before his death, Morgan was honoured by the U.S. government for his traffic signal invention, and he was eventually restored to his place in history as a hero of the Lake Erie rescue.


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