Garrett Augustus Morgan Biography (1875-1963)


Garrett Morgan, an African-American inventor, is recognized for his wide range of interests and inventions. He is best known for his development of the gas mask and the automatic traffic signal, but he also gained recognition for perfecting a hair-straightening cream and a belt fastener device for sewing machines. Born in Paris, Kentucky, the seventh of eleven children, Morgan, likeother indigents in the poverty belt, quit school at age fourteen and went tothe city to look for work. Morgan moved first to Cincinnati, where he workedat odd jobs for four years. Then he moved on to Cleveland and found a job ata sewing machine repair company.

In 1907, Morgan opened his own sewing machine sales and repair shop. Two years later, he opened his own tailoring shop, and employed 32 people to make coats, suits, and dresses. Morgan encountered a problem in his sewing business:the heat and friction of the needles would often scorch wool cloth. He decided to solve the problem himself, and worked on a chemical solution to coat theneedles and so reduce the friction. Morgan accidentily discovered that thissolution would also straighten curly hair. After testing it on himself and aneighbor s Airedale, Morgan launched his G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Cream in1909. The company he set up to manufacture and market his hair straightener did very well, and Morgan was alleged to be the first black man in Cleveland to own a car.

Morgan received a patent for his most important invention in 1914. This was his Safety Hood, a breathing device that evolved into the modern gas mask. Itconsisted of an airtight canvas hood worn over the head and connected to a breathing tubes that hung to the ground. Morgan won a gold medal at the SecondInternational Exposition of Sanitation and Safety in New York City in 1914 for his invention, which he marketed for fire fighters, engineers, chemists, and others working with dangerous fumes. But it wasn t until Morgan proved theusefulness of his device himself that his gas mask really caught on. In 1916,Morgan and his brother Frank donned the life-saving mask and rescued more than 20 workers trapped in a tunnel 228 feet (70 m) beneath Lake Erie at the Cleveland Water Works. For this rescue, Morgan won a second gold medal, and hebegan to receive many more orders for the mask. His mask proved effective inWorld War I, and eventually became standard issue for soldiers. Morgan eventually set up his own company to manufacture gas masks. The product sold well until the public learned that the manufacturer was black. Even after he disguised himself as Big Chief Mason, a Canadian Indian, and hired white demonstrators as marketing representatives, sales of the gas mask faltered.

To occupy his talents, he turned to the development of the automatic three-stage electric traffic light. Before Morgan s invention, traffic signals indicated only Go or Stop, and they were frequently ignored. Morgan s light had arms that could be raised or lowered, and when they were in the halfway position, they indicated that drivers were to slow down. This was the precursor to the red, yellow and green lights in use today. Morgan patented his traffic light in 1923, and then sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000.

In the 1920s, he organized a newspaper, the Cleveland Call. A civil rights activist, he took part in the formation of the NAACP, and in 1931 ran unsuccessfully for Cleveland's city council on a platform of fair housing, employment, and representation for all people. His declining years were marred byglaucoma, but he maintained an interest in inventions until his death in 1963.

Recent Updates

February 10, 2005: It was announced that Morgan will be inducted intothe National Inventors Hall of Fame in recognition of his inventions of the gas mask and the three-way traffic signal. His induction will take place at aceremony held in Akron, Ohio, in May of 2005. The National Inventors Hall ofFame honors individuals, both living and dead, whose work has changed societyand improved the way we live. Source: Forbes,,April 7, 2005.

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