His invention of the gas mask has saved countless lives since World War I, and his patent of the first traffic signal led to the modern-day traffic light.
Garrett Morgan, the son of former slaves, was born in Paris, Kentucky in 1877 (the seventh of 11 children). His formal education never went beyond elementary school, and he spent much of his time working on the family farm with his brothers and sisters. While still a teenager, he left Kentucky and moved north to Cincinnati, Ohio in search of opportunity. His talents later led him in 1895 to Cleveland, Ohio, where he went to work as a sewing machine repair man for a clothing manufacturer. News of his proficiency for fixing things and experimenting traveled fast and led to numerous job offers from various manufacturing firms in the Cleveland area. He soon opened his own sewing equipment and repair shop there. It was the first of several businesses he would establish. In 1909, he expanded the enterprise to include a tailoring shop that employed 32 employees. The new company turned out coats, suits and dresses, all sewn with equipment that Garrett Morgan himself had made.
Why He’s Important: Cleveland inventor and businessman Garrett Morgan is perhaps best known for inventing a device in 1914 which he called it a “Safety Hood” and later became known to the world as a Gas Mask. The Safety Hood consisted of a hood worn over the head of a person (such as a fireman in a burning building), and from this hood emanated a tube that reached near the ground and allowed clean air to be inhaled. The bottom of the tube was lined with a sponge type material that would help to filter the incoming air. Another tube allowed the user to exhale air out of the device. Garrett also found that this apparatus, in addition to be a life-saving device, was efficient and useful for protection to engineers, chemists and other workers who breathe noxious fumes or dust derived from the materials in which they were obliged to work.
In 1916, Garrett Morgan made national news for using his gas mask to rescue 32 men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel 250 feet beneath Lake Erie near Cleveland. He and a team of volunteers donned the new “gas masks” and went to the rescue. After the rescue of some workers, his company received requests from fire departments around the country who wished to purchase the new masks. (It should be noted that many of these orders were unfortunately canceled initially when it was discovered that Garrett was Black. Nonetheless, with the outbreak of World War I and the use of poisonous gases in this war, Garrett’s gas mask was used by the United States Army and saved the lives of thousands of soldiers.)
Other Achievements: Although he could have lived comfortably on the income that his gas mask invention generated, Garrett felt compelled to try to solve other safety problems of the day. One day he witnessed a traffic accident in which an automobile collided with a horse and carriage. The driver of the automobile was knocked unconscious and the horse had to be destroyed. He set out to develop a means of automatically directing traffic without the need of a policeman or worker present on street corners. He patented an automatic traffic signal which he said could be “operated for directing the flow of traffic” and providing a clear and unambiguous “visible indicator.” Today’s modern traffic lights are based upon his original design. He sold the rights to his device to the General Electric Company for the sum of $40,000 and it became the standard across the country, and was patented in Great Britain and Canada as well. Garrett also invented a zig-zag stitching attachment for manually operated sewing machine, and he founded a company that made personal grooming products, such as hair dying ointments and the curved-tooth pressing comb for straightening hair. Eventually, he was awarded a gold Medal of Bravery by prominent citizens of Cleveland and a gold medal for bravery from the International Association of Fire Chiefs for his life-saving episode using the gas mask.
Education: Garrett Morgan was constantly exploring with new concepts of innovation, but his formal education never took him beyond elementary school; he hired a tutor while living in Cincinnati and continued his studies in English grammar. The rest of his education was primarily self-taught through books.
In His Own Words: Always the straight-speaking optimist, Garrett liked to say: “If you have the ability to do something, why don’t you do it?” After developing glaucoma in 1943, he gradually lost most of his sight. He died at age 86 in Cleveland.
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