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.
>> Read more about trailblazing Black scientists here.
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.
To celebrate Black History Month, we take a look back at some of the great Black scientists and innovators. From laser eye surgery to the gas mask, here are some of the seminal contributions made by these ingenious inventors.
 Lewis Howard Latimer – Image credit: Unknown author Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
 Leonidas Berry - Image credit: Adundi, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
 Betty Harris – Image credit: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/harris-betty-wright-1940/ - Fair use image
 Patricia Bath - Image credit: National Library of Medicine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
 Philip Emeagwali - Image credit: SakaMese, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
1880 – Johnson Powell
Have you ever used eye protectors to protect yourself against the glare of intense light? For those working in extreme environments such as fires and furnaces, Johnson Powell’s eye protectors will have been a sight for sore eyes.
1881 – James Wormley
James Wormley invented a life-saving apparatus for boats. His contraption included a string of floats that extended from a ship’s side via a sliding rod with projecting arms. The famous hotelier was also said to be at President Abraham Lincoln’s bedside when he died.
Image Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
1882 – Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis Howard Latimer is probably best known for inventing a durable carbon filament that was key to the success of the electric light bulb. Latimer also invented an evaporative air conditioner and even drafted the drawings to secure the patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s little known invention… the telephone.
>> Click here for more on Lewis Howard Latimer’s extraordinary contribution to science.
1912 – Garrett Morgan
Imagine using your own invention to save people’s lives? That’s exactly what Garrett Morgan did when he donned his patented smoke hood to rescue trapped men from a smoke-filled tunnel beneath Lake Erie. Morgan’s device later evolved into a gas mask, and he also invented a three-position traffic signal, hair straightening cream, and a self-extinguishing cigarette for good measure.
1916 – Madeline M. Turner
Madeline M. Turner’s ingenious invention was the fruit of her own frustration. Turner grew tired of squeezing oranges for her glass of juice, so she created the fruit press machine to solve the problem.
1932 – Richard Spikes
It’s safe to say Richard Spikes was a polymath. The American inventor created an automatic gear shift device for cars, a pressurised beer tap, and a horizontally swinging barber’s chair – all while working as a teacher and barber and being a capable pianist and violinist.
Image Credit: Adundi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
1966 – Leonidas Berry
This doctor and civil rights advocate invented the Eder-Berry gastroscopy endoscope in 1955, which helped doctors to biopsy the inside of the stomach without surgery. According to the US National Library of Medicine, ‘the Eder-Berry biopsy attachment made the gastroscope the first direct-vision suction instrument used for taking tissue samples during gastroscopic examination’.
Image Credit: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/harris-betty-wright-1940/ - fair use image
1984 – Betty Harris
Perhaps the most explosive discovery of all belongs to Betty Harris. Harris’ spot test for detecting 1,3,5-triamino-2,4,6-trinitrobenzene in the field is used by US Homeland Security today to check for nitroaromatic explosives. In her spare time, Harris has even found the time to work with the Girl Scouts to develop a badge based on Chemistry.
>> SCI is proud to support #BlackinChem. Take a look at some of our recent work.
Image Credit: National Library of Medicine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
1988 – Patricia Bath
Patricia Bath has helped return the gift of sight to thousands of people. The US ophthalmologist invented a quick and painless device that dissolves cataracts with a laser and cleans the eye, enabling the simple insertion of a new lens. Her laserphaco probe is still in use today.
Image Credit: Philip Emeagwali - SakaMese, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
1989 – Philip Emeagwali
Nigerian computer scientist Philip Emeagwali won the prestigious1989 Gordon Bell Prize in Price Performance for a high-performance computer application that used computational fluid dynamics in oil-reservoir modelling. In the same year, Emeagwali also claimed to perform the world’s fastest computation – 3.1 billion calculations per second – using just the power of the internet.
2002 – Donald K. Jones
Donald K Jones made a notable contribution to medicine with his invention of a detachable balloon embolisation device that reduces the size of aneurysms (bulges in blood vessels). The endovascular occlusion device is implanted into the body, whereupon its clever balloon system and adhesive materials reduce the size of aneurysms.
>> Which barriers still block the way for Black chemists? Read Claudio Lourenco’s story.
Marking Black History Month and following on from the #BlackInChem initiative, SCI is continuing its look back at some of the unsung Black scientists who pioneered, and made important contributions, to the advancement of science.
Today we profile Lewis Howard Latimer, much admired by his contemporaries; Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, but sadly a name, and story, that is not as well known.
Lewis Howard Latimer | Image Credit: By Unknown author - http://www.lrc.rpi.edu/resources/news/pressReleases/img/Lewis.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2032528
Lewis Howard Latimer, the youngest of four children, was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on 4 September 1848. His father, George Latimer, a slave who had escaped, became something of a cause celebre when his owner recaptured him. However, abolitionists took his case to the Supreme Court and his freedom was secured.
Lewis proved to be an excellent student, with a particular flair for drawing, as well as writing poetry and stories, but lack of finance and restricted access to education meant that by 15 years of age, Lewis had joined the US Navy. The history books indicate that he was honourably discharged in 1865; when the Civil War ended.
Soon after, Latimer found work as an office boy with the patent firm Crosby, Halstead and Gould. It is here that combining his talent for drawing, and developing the skills of a draughtsman he was eventually promoted to the position of head draftsman. The history books record that Latimer’s first patent, in 1874 with colleague Charles Brown, was an improved toilet system for railroad cars.
Lewis Latimer was instrumental in helping Alexander Graham Bell file his patent for the telephone ahead of his competitors.
Latimer had many inventions, but it could be argued that his drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, helped seal his place in science history. The story goes that Bell was in a race against time, as rivals were also looking to gain patent rights for a similar device. Bell hired Latimer who used his expertise in drawing and submitting patent applications to help Bell file his patent just hours, it said, before his rival in 1876.
By 1880 Latimer had taken up the post of mechanical draughtsman for the inventor Hiram Maxim, who was also the founder of the US Electric Lighting Company. Now focused on incandescent lighting, Latimer along with Joseph Nichols, invented a light bulb which used a carbon filament, an improvement on Thomas Edison’s paper filament. The invention, patented in 1881, was sold to the US Electric Lighting Company in the same year.
Latimer invented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs | Editorial credit: Claudio Zaccherini / Shutterstock.com
1A booklet by the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation noted; ‘Latimer invented and patented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs. He taught the process to company workers, and soon it was being used in factory production. Latimer also assisted in installing Maxim lighting systems in New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal and London. During the installation of lighting in Montreal, where a lot of people spoke only French, Latimer learned the language in order to competently instruct the workers. In London he set up the first factory for the Maxim-Weston Electric Light Company. That required him to teach the workmen all the processes for making Maxim lamps, including glass blowing. In just nine months Latimer had the factory in full production.’
In 1882 Latimer left Hiram Maxim and in 1884 joined the Edison Electric Light Company, where he was given the title draughtsman-engineer. In 1890 he joined the Edison Legal Department, and in 1893 testified in a case where the company said that its incandescent lamp patents had been infringed. In 1896 the Board of Patent Control of GE and Westinghouse was formed and Latimer became its Chief Draughtsman. He continued in that role until 1911 when he joined the consulting firm Edwin W Hammer.
On 24 January 1918, Latimer was named one of the 28 charter members – and the only African-American member – of the Edison Pioneers, ‘a distinguished group of people who worked to keep the ideals of Thomas Edison alive.’ The Edison Pioneers helped create the US’ electric power industry.
Latimer received patents for several inventions, including the safety elevator. He also had a passion for social justice. In a letter written in 1895 in support of the National Conference of Coloured Men, Latimer wrote: ‘I have faith to believe that the nation will respond to our plea for equality before the law, security under the law, and an opportunity, by and through maintenance of the law, to enjoy with our fellow citizens of all races and complexions the blessings guaranteed us under the constitution.’
Latimer died on 11 December 1928. Edison Pioneers historian and long time private secretary of Thomas Edison, William H. Meadowcroft wrote1 ‘Lewis Howard Latimer was of the coloured race, the only one in our organisation, and was one of those to respond to the initial call that led to the formation of the Edison Pioneers, January 24 1918. Broadmindedness, versatility in the accomplishment of things intellectual and cultural, a linguist, a devoted husband and father, all were characteristics of him, and his genial presence will be missed from our gatherings…We hardly mourn his inevitable going so much as we rejoice in pleasant memory at having being associated with him in a great work for all peoples under a great man.’
1For more information on Latimer’s life, work and legacy, see the Edison Electric Institute resource: Thomas Alva Edison Associate: Lewis Howard Latimer: A Black Inventor.