Black News and News Makers in History: Garrett Morgan

African American news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes Garrett Morgan this week in Black history.Garrett Augustus Morgan, born on March 4, 1877 in Paris Kentucky, the son of former slaves. In his early childhood, he was attending school and 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.

Although Garrett Morgan's formal education never took him beyond elementary school, he hired a tutor while living in Cincinnati and continued his studies in English grammar.

In 1895, Morgan moved 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.

In 1907, Morgan opened his own sewing equipment and repair shop. It was the first of several businesses he would establish.

He also founded a company that made personal grooming products, such as hair dying ointments and the curved-tooth pressing comb. Morgan's initial success was as an early manufacturer and marketer of hair straightening cream (Morgan Hair Refiner), hair dye, and accessories. He sold pressing combs and skin bleach, the latter under the trade name Bleecheen Ointment.

Legend has it that during the time when he owned his own sewing equipment and repair shop, he wiped his hands, which were covered with a lubricant used for the machines, on a bit of wooly cloth. When he returned to the shop the next day, the cloth was smooth. Interested in replicating this result, he experimented on a neighbor's Airedale dog, whose hair became so smooth that its owner "drove the cur from his house," not recognizing his own pet. Satisfied with his experiment, Morgan tried the same preparation on his own hair, and thus was born G.A. Morgan's Hair Refiner. From this preparation, Morgan evolved a wide line of hair products, such that a few years later he could rightly claim to offer "the only complete line of hair preparations in the world."

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.

Morgan's hair business thrived, but at the same time he was busy marketing the Morgan's American Safety Helmet. The safety helmet proved an enormous success, winning several prizes at international exhibitions.

Morgan filed a patent application for this device on August 19, 1912 describing it as an apparatus which could "provide a portable attachment which will enable a fireman to enter a house filled with thick suffocating gasses and smoke and to breathe freely for some time therein, and thereby enable him to perform his duties of saving lives and valuables without danger to himself." Its mechanism was simple: the hood had two tubes which trailed down to the floor, where fresh air could be obtained (assuming that, as in a fire, the fumes to be avoided were warmer or lighter than air); there was no filtration of the air in his first models. A backpack-like air reservoir provided a small amount of unpressurized reserve air.

Another legend is that Morgan demonstrated the hood for numerous fire departments; in the South, he was forced to pose as an "Indian" assistant and hire a white man to pretend to be "Mr. Morgan" in order to sell his product in those Jim Crow times.

In 1914, Garrett Morgan was awarded a patent for a Safety Hood and Smoke Protector. Two years later, a refined model of his early gas mask won a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety, and another gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

On July 25, 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. Morgan and a team of volunteers donned the new "gas masks" and went to the rescue. After the rescue, Morgan's company received requests from fire departments around the country who wished to purchase the new masks. The Morgan gas mask was later refined for use by U.S. Army during World War I.

In 1920, Garrett Morgan moved into the newspaper business when he established the Cleveland Call. As the years went on, he became a prosperous and widely respected businessman and he was able to purchase a home and an automobile. It was Morgan's experience while driving along the streets of Cleveland that inspired him to invent an improvement to traffic signals.

The first American-made automobiles were introduced to U.S. consumers shortly before the turn of the century. The Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 and, with it, American consumers began to discover the adventures of the open road. In the early years of the 20th century, it was common for bicycles, animal-powered wagons, and new gasoline-powered motor vehicles to share the same streets and roadways with pedestrians and accidents were frequent. After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Garrett Morgan took his turn at inventing a traffic signal. Other inventors had experimented with, marketed, and even patented traffic signals, however, Garrett Morgan was one of the first to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for an inexpensive to produce traffic signal. The patent was granted on November 20, 1923. It was one of the first traffic signals in the United States.

Morgan later had his technology patented in Great Britain and Canada. The signal, a red, green, and amber light to direct traffic to stop, proceed with caution, or go, revolutionized traffic control. This complex device saved many lives by directing the flow of automobiles on city streets. General Electric bought Morgan's patent for $40,000, and his traffic management device was used throughout North America until it was replaced by the red, yellow and green-light traffic signals. Today, traffic lights throughout the world work on a red, amber, and green pattern, with some variations.

Morgan was constantly experimenting to develop new concepts. Though the traffic signal came at the height of his career and became one of his most renowned inventions, it was just one of several innovations he developed, manufactured, and sold over the years.

Morgan invented a zig-zag stitching attachment for manually operated sewing machine.

As word of Garrett Morgan's life-saving inventions spread across North America and England, demand for these products grew. He was frequently invited to conventions and public exhibitions to demonstrate how his inventions worked.

In later years, Morgan suffered from a variety of health problems which he believed were related to his exposure to toxins present at the crib disaster, but was unsuccessful in his attempts to be compensated by the city. He developed glaucoma, for which he sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic, but by the late 1950's he was nearly blind. He continued inventing throughout his life -- one of his last devices, developed in the 1950's, was a self-extinguishing cigarette.

Garrett Morgan died on August 27, 1963, at the age of 86. His life was long and full, and his creative energies have given us a marvelous and lasting legacy. Shortly before his death in 1963, Garrett Morgan was awarded a citation for his traffic signal by the United States Government.

Compiled from: http://www.ric.edu/faculty/rpotter/morgan.html and http://inventors.about.com/od/mstartinventors/a/Garrett_Morgan.htm.


Get our news by email!

Please be sure to add pasadenajournal.com to your approved senders list before subscribing! Learn More
Unsubscribe any time

Search the Journal


Some sections of our site are for registered and/or paid subscribers only. Please login or create an account.

To post Comments, submit events or access Article Archives you must be a registered member:


Missing Something?

Did you know you can get the Pasadena Journal weekly print publication for more news and information?


Black News and News Makers in History

4/17/1990: August Wilson, playwright, wins second Pulitzer Prize for drama with "The Piano Lesson."

4/18/1955: Bill Russell named Boston Celtics coach, first African American to coach established professional athletics team.

4/18/1976: Percy Julian, inventor of over 138 chemical patents & pioneer synthesizer of cortisone drugs, dies.

4/19/1947: Jackie Robinson becomes first African American major league baseball player.

4/19/1775: Minutemen, of both black and white ethnicity, fought British soldiers at Lexington, Concord, & Bunker Hill.

4/19/1887: Elijah J McCoy, inventor, patents lubricant attachment.

4/19/1892: Robert Coates, inventor, patents overboot for horses.

4/20/1853: Harriet Tubman, fugitive slave, freedom fighter & spy, starts Underground Railroad. Read More.

4/20/1899: Edward ("Duke") Kennedy Ellington, entertainer, born.

4/21/2003: Nina Simone, singer, dies in Paris France.

4/22/1596: First recorded slave revolt occurs in Stono, SC.

4/22/1970: Yale University students protest in support of Black Panthers.

4/22/1978: Bob Marley, singer, held famous "One Love" concert.

4/23/1856: Granville T. Woods, prolific inventor, born.

4/23/1872: Charlotte E. Ray becomes first female African American attorney. Read More.

4/23/1913: National Urban League founded.