Continuing our series on Black pioneering scientists and inventors, we profile Garrett Augustus Morgan. His observations led him to upgrade the sewing machine, invent and upgrade life saving devices and develop personal care products for Black people, while championing civil rights and fighting for his own recognition.
Garrett Augustus Morgan | Image credit: Public domain image courtesy of: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1165661
Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in 1877, in Kentucky, US. Like many Black students he left school at a young age to find work. However, while working as a handyman in Cincinnati, he was able to hire a tutor and continue his studies.
During 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and it is said that Morgan’s interest in how things worked was sparked while repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. It was during this time that Morgan’s first inventions were developed: a belt fastener for sewing machines and the attachment used for creating zigzag stitching. By 1905, Morgan had opened a sewing machine shop and then a shop making clothes, ultimately providing employment for more than 30 people.
It was also during this time that Morgan became involved in the establishment of the Cleveland Association of Coloured Men. In addition to his interest in ‘gadgets’, Morgan also patented hair care products for Black people.
The life-saving Safety Hood
Morgan is credited with several inventions that have been responsible for saving many lives. In 1912 he filed a patent for the Safety Hood, which was developed after he had seen fire fighters struggling from the smoke encountered while tackling blazes. On the back of his invention, Morgan was able to establish the National Safety Device Company, in 1914, to market the product. While Morgan was able to sell his safety device across the US, it is said that on some occasions he hired a White actor to take credit for the device, rather than revealing himself as the inventor.
Morgan’s Safety Hood was soon in use in various settings including hospitals and ammonia factories. Indeed, the Safety Hood was used to save many lives and by the start of World War I, the breathing device had been refined to carry its own air supply. The Safety Hood was awarded a gold medal by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
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Morgan’s device reached national prominence when it was used in the rescue of survivors and victims of a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie in 1916. The accounts tell of Morgan being woken early in the morning of 24 July 1916, after two rescuers lost their lives following the explosion.
Morgan is said to have arrived on the scene in his pyjamas, with his brother and a number of Safety Hoods. To allay the fears of the sceptics about his Safety Hood, Morgan went into the tunnel and retrieved two victims. Others joined and several people were rescued. Morgan is reported to have made four trips, but this heroism affected his health for years after as a result of the fumes he encountered.
Sadly, Morgan’s bravery and the impact of his Safety Hood were not initially recognised by the local press or city officials. It was some time later that Morgan’s role was acknowledged; and in 1917 a group of citizens presented him with the gold medal.
Garrett A. Morgan rescues a man at the 1917 Lake Erie Crib Disaster | Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 Image in the Public Domain
While orders for Morgan’s device increased following the incident, it is said that when his picture appeared in the national press, crediting him as the Safety Hood inventor, officials in a number of southern cities cancelled their orders. Morgan is quoted as saying; ‘I had but a little schooling, but I am a graduate from the school of hard knocks and cruel treatment. I have personally saved nine lives.’
Safety seemed to be an important area for Morgan, as he became alarmed about the number of accidents that were occurring as cars became more prevalent in America. Along with the cars, bicycles, animal-drawn carts and people were sharing ever more crowded roads.
After witnessing an accident at a junction, Morgan filed a patent for a traffic light device which incorporated a third warning position. The idea for the ‘all hold’ position or what is now known as the amber light was patented in 1923. Morgan sold the idea to General Electric for $40,000 the same year. It should be noted, however, that a three signal system had been invented in 1920.
Morgan is credited with establishing a newspaper, building a country club open to Black people, and running for a seat on the Cleveland City Council, among many notable achievements. Morgan died in July 1963. He has been recognised in Cleveland Ohio, with the Garrett A. Morgan Cleveland School of Science, and the Garrett A. Morgan Water Treatment Plant being named in his honour. In addition, a number of elementary schools and streets carry his name.