What do gas masks, traffic lights and hair straightening products have in common? All of them were either invented or improved upon by the American inventor Garrett Augustus Morgan. Born on 4 March 1877, he managed to succeed during times of great social and racial inequality, making the lives of countless people safer in the process.
If you can be the best, then why not try to be the best?
Morgan’s parents were former slaves with a mixed race background, a fact that would play a role in his business dealings later in life. His father, Sydney, was the son of a Confederate colonel, while Morgan’s mother, Elizabeth Reed, was of Indian and African descent. Raised in Claysville, Kentucky, Morgan only received an elementary school level of education. Like so many other young children at that time, he dropped out to work full time at the family farm. However, Morgan yearned for more. He moved to Cincinnati when he was a teenager, finding employment as a handyman. This allowed him to continue his schooling with a private tutor.
Morgan would eventually end up in Cleveland, Ohio as a sewing machine repair man. His expertise allowed him to invent an improved version of the device, setting the groundwork for his own repair business. This would be the first of many companies he established throughout his life. By the 1920s his success made him a wealthy man, with dozens of workers employed by him.
Hair straightening products
In 1909, Morgan and his second wife Mary opened their own tailoring shop. He quickly became aware of a common problem that seamstresses had at that time – woollen fabric would sometimes get scotched by the fast-moving sewing machine needle.
Morgan started experimenting with different chemicals to alleviate the problem, soon discovering that one of his mixtures made the cloth hairs straighter. Following some test runs on a neighbour’s dog and then on himself, he founded the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company and began selling the product to African American customers. His first major breakthrough would guarantee his financial independence.
The safety hood
In 1914 Garrett Morgan patented the design of an early gas mask, named the safety hood. It became the prototype for the masks used in World War One.
Due to widespread prejudice, Morgan would regularly pretend to be a Native American assistant named ‘Big Chief Mason’ during product demonstrations, while a white actor would act as the ‘inventor’. This ensured higher sales, especially in the southern US states. Morgan’s mask became a success with firefighters and rescue workers. He received a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety for his significant contribution.
Morgan would end up using his own invention in a real life crisis. In 1916 an explosion under Lake Erie trapped a number of workers inside a tunnel that was dug underneath the lake. Morgan and his brother decided to go and help out, saving two lives in the process. Ironically his heroic deeds would end up hurting product sales, since it was revealed that he was the true inventor of the safety hood. Some reports of the accident did not mention him or his brother at all. This did not seem to deter Morgan from developing further inventions that made everyday life safer.
As the first African American person in Cleveland to own a car, Garret became acutely aware of some of the dangers of driving. In 1923 he created an improved traffic light, which had a signal light, informing drivers that they had to stop. He was motivated to create this after witnessing a carriage accident at an intersection. The design consisted of a T-shaped pole, which had three different types of signals on it: stop, go, and stop in all directions. It eventually became one his most famous inventions. Garret sold the rights for his patent to General Electric for $40,000.
Garrett Morgan was not only an effective entrepreneur, but also generous, giving back to the local community. He worked towards the betterment of African American lives, during a period when racial discrimination was widespread. Morgan was a member of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, donated money to colleagues and founded the first all-Black country club.
Morgan’s inventions have had a profound impact on our everyday world, making the jobs of rescue workers and vehicle operators much safer in the process. Shortly before his death in 1963, he was honoured by the US government for his traffic light invention and was publicly recognised for his heroic deeds at the Lake Erie accident.