Garrett Morgan was an inventor who saw a problem and set out to solve it. He spent much of his life in Ohio, where he had a number of successful businesses and received patents that led to the gas masks and traffic signals that still keep people safe today.
Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky in 1877 and grew up working on his family’s farm. His parents were former enslaved people, and his father was the enslaved son of Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan.
As a teenager, Morgan moved to Ohio and began working at the Roots and McBride Company, where he taught himself to repair sewing machines. In 1907, he opened a repair shop, followed by a garment shop that he started with his wife in 1909. He began designing machines and innovations, like a zigzag stitching device for manually-operating sewing machines. In 1913 he also incorporated the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company, which sold hair-straightening products that Morgan invented.
In 1914, Morgan received two patents for breathing devices intended for use by firefighters, engineers, chemists, and workers who might be exposed to noxious fumes. The design consisted of a protective canvas hood with air tubes that could supply fresh air and remove smoke or gases. Morgan wrote in his patent application that “the object of the invention is to provide a portable attachment which will enable a fireman to enter a house filled with thick suffocating gases and smoke and to breathe freely for some time therein and thereby enable him to perform his duties of saving life and valuables without danger to himself of suffocation.”
The safety hood proved its worth during the Lake Erie crib disaster in 1916. During construction of water intake tunnels for Cleveland’s water system, a natural gas explosion filled a tunnel beneath Lake Erie with carbon monoxide. Morgan and other rescuers used his devices to enter the shaft and rescue miners.
After more successful demonstrations, Morgan sold safety hoods to fire and police departments, mining companies, and the US Navy and the design was the basis for gas masks used by the US Army in WWI.
He was inspired to create another influential invention after witnessing a crash between a car and a horse-drawn carriage in Cleveland. At the time, the city used manually-operated traffic signals at the intersections of major streets, but they only had two signals, which made the transition between signals dangerous.
Morgan’s traffic signal patent, granted in 1923, outlined a crank-operated, three-position mechanical design mounted on a T-shaped pole. It added a “stop in all directions” signal not seen in previous devices, which gave drivers time to clear the intersection and allowed pedestrians to cross safely.
The first G.A. Morgan Safety System was installed in Willoughby, Ohio, and after he sold the patent to General Electric for $40,000, three-position traffic signals were used across the country.
The success of his businesses allowed him to start a newspaper, the Cleveland Call, in 1920. According to History.com, it was “one of the most important Black newspapers in the nation.”
His health was impacted by early gas mask testing, and he developed glaucoma that left him nearly blind by the 1950s. Morgan died in 1963 in Cleveland.
He was recognized by the US government for his traffic signal invention, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005, and the US Department of Transportation started the Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Futures Program in 1997.
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