Garrett Morgan is an inspiration from history thanks to his brilliantly inventive mind, numerous patents for life-saving inventions, and his tireless dedication to improving society. Though his efforts were little appreciated in his lifetime, he remains one of America’s most treasured inventors.
Garrett Morgan was born on March 4th, 1877 in Paris, Kentucky, US, to a Baptist minister’s daughter and a former slave. Seeking work, Morgan moved to Cincinnati in his teens and became a handyman for a wealthy Ohio landowner. Using the money from his employment, he was able to afford the services of a private tutor to supplement his elementary-grade education.
Morgan’s affinity and fascination for machinery was nurtured through several jobs in local sewing machine factories where he worked as a repairman. Recognising where improvements could be made, Morgan’s first patent came in the form of a revised sewing machine. This allowed him to establish his own sewing machine repair business when he settled down in Cleveland with his new wife – Mary Anne Hassek.
Morgan’s new wife was a talented seamstress and using money from his thriving sewing machine repair business, they opened up a tailoring store together. This is where Morgan would come across the inspiration for another popular invention.
Sewing needles at the time were notorious for often scorching the material they sewed, due to the speed at which the needles ran. To offset this, he began experimenting with different solutions that were used to coat the needles to reduce friction and minimise scorching. After noticing the hairs of the material were straighter, and confirming it on a neighbour’s dog, then himself, Morgan established the G.A Morgan Hair Refining Company and sold the product as a successful hair cream.
One of Garrett’s most important inventions came in the form of his “smoke hood”, which worked using a mixture of a wet sponge to filter out toxic air. Despite many demonstrations, and his design forming the basis for the WWI gas mask, Morgan found it initially difficult to drum up interest from police departments, fire services, and the military.
His invention was proven to work, however, in 1916 when he used them to help save miners trapped in the tunnels under Lake Erie. Using his smoke hoods, Morgan was able to retrieve multiple men from the smoke filled tunnels, saving many lives – including those of the two previous rescue attempts who had become stuck in the tunnels.
Another of Morgan’s life-saving inventions came in the form of one of the earliest mechanical traffic lights. Morgan’s successful businesses allowed him to be one of the first people in his community to own a car, and after noticing a serious accident at a dangerous intersection he devised his idea. Despite being ubiquitous now, however, he sold his patent to General Electric for $40,000.
Garrett Morgan has become one of history’s most popular inventors. His tireless thirst for knowledge and special breed of creativity literally saved lives. He was also an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and put much of his profits into donations for black students to achieve a college education.