On March 4th, 1877 Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky.
He attended a Kentucky elementary school sparingly through his early childhood, however much of his time was spent working at his parents’ farm.
Morgan was an intelligent child, and despite only ever being educated formally to a sixth-grade level, he continued to pursue education through his teens in the form of private tutors. He learned while working a number of jobs around the Cincinnati, Ohio area.
When he was 18, he made the move to Cleveland, Ohio, taking a job repairing sewing machines. He was constantly learning about how the machines operated, how to fix them, and how to improve them. This led him to open up his own mechanical repair shop – which was the start of a burgeoning business empire for the young Morgan. His keen eye for business led him to expand his portfolio into a tailoring shop, a company specialising in personal grooming products, and his very own newspaper – the Cleveland Call.
Come 1920, Morgan was wealthy. He was consistently trying to improve the efficiency of the machines he used in his tailoring business, all of which were initially designed by him. He also continued to invent numerous small labour-saving and safety devices for use around the workplace and on the streets.
The traffic signal
Morgan was the first black man in Cleveland to own a car – which would lead him to create one of the two most notable inventions he is now famous for. Whilst driving one day, he witnessed a crash between a buggy and a car. This inspired him to create the first mechanical stoplight – the patent for which he was granted on November 20th, 1923. Despite now being ubiquitous, and being patented in Canada and Great Britain, Morgan sold his patent to the General Electric Corporation for a single payment of $40,000. This was the second of Morgan’s inventions which took the nation by storm.
Morgan’s safety hood
In 1914 he received a patent for his own improvised version of a gas mask, often called a “safety hood”. His idea came to him as a young man, watching how firefighters struggled to breathe when they were surrounded by smoke. The device was essentially a canvas hood, with two tubes fastened to it – smoke was filtered outward while the air inside was cooled, allowing the user to breathe more comfortably.
The device remained largely anonymous for two years, until 1916 when it was used to great effect when a tunnel collapsed under Lake Erie. Morgan and other men donned his safety masks which allowed them to get the trapped workers to safety. Despite Morgan’s own heroism in the ordeal being mostly ignored for many years, it nonetheless encouraged organisations around the US to start using his device.
It was eventually bought by over 500 cities throughout the north, where it was used by firefighters, police services, and mines – as well as the United States Army, which would use a slightly modified version of Morgan’s design throughout World War One.
Morgan died in Cleveland on July 27th, 1963 at the age of 86.