The Millstone Times May 2022

Interesting People Throughout History Garratt Morgan, Inventor-Trailblazer By Pam Te l

Garrett Morgan blazed a trail for African American inventors with his patents, including those for a hair-straightening product, a breathing device, a revamped sewing machine and an improved traffic signal. With just an elementary school education, Morgan began his career as a sewing-machine mechanic. He went on to patent several inventions, including an improved sewing machine, a traffic signal, a hair-straightening product, and a respiratory device that would later provide the blueprint for WWI gas masks. He was born in Claysville, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877, and was the seventh out of eleven children. His mother, Elizabeth Reed, was of Native American Indian, white, and African descent, and the daughter of a Baptist minister. His father, Sydney, was half black and half white, formerly enslaved, but freed in 1863. His father was the son of Confederate Colonel, John Hunt Morgan, who led Morgan’s raid in the civil war. Morgan's mixed-race heritage would play a part in his business dealings as an adult. Morgan moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in his mid- teens to look for work. First, becoming a handyman to a wealthy landowner. Al though he only completed a sixth-grade education, he was able to pay for more lessons from a private tutor, where he continued his studies in English grammar. Word of his proficiency for fixing things traveled fast and he worked at numerous sewing machine and clothing factories as a repairman in the Cleveland area. He learned the inner workings of the machines and how to fix them, then went on to obtain a patent for an improved sewing machine. This led him to open his own repair business. Morgan married twice, his first marriage only lasting two years. His second wife, who he married ten years later, was a seamstress from Bohemia. Their marriage was one of the earliest interracial marriages in Cleveland. They went on to have three children. Morgan's business was a success. A year later, he expanded his business to include a tailor shop that employed 32 people. The new company made coats, suits, and dresses, all sown with equipment Morgan made himself. It was here he invented zig zag stitching. Following the momentum of his business success, Morgan's patented sewing machine would soon pave the way to his financial freedom. In 1909, Morgan was working with sewing machines in his newly opened tailoring shop, he encountered woolen fabric that had been scorched by a sewing-machine needle. It was a common problem at the time, since sewing-machine needles ran at such high speeds. In hopes of alleviating the problem, Morgan experimented with a chemical solution in an effort to reduce friction created by the needle and subsequently noticed that the hairs of the cloth were straighter. After trying his solution to good effect on a neighboring dog's fur, Morgan finally tested the concoction on himself. When that worked, he quickly established the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company and sold the cream to African Americans. This also included hair dying ointments and the curved pressing comb. The company was incredibly successful, bringing Morgan financial security and allowing him to pursue other interests. In 1914, Morgan patented a breathing device, or "safety hood," providing its wearers with a safer breathing experience in the presence of smoke, gases, and other pollutants. Morgan worked hard to market the device, especially to fire departments, often personally demonstrating its reliability in fires. Morgan's breathing device became the prototype and precursor for the gas masks used during World War I, protecting soldiers from toxic gas used in warfare. The invention earned him the first prize at the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in New York City. In 1914 he was awarded two patents for the invention of the early gas mask, the safety hood, and the smoke protector. New York City quickly adopted the masks, and eventually 500 cities followed. Due to the Jim Crow era of discrimination, Morgan used white people in advertising to sell his products. In 1916, Morgan made national news for using his gas mask to rescue men trapped during an explosion in the underground tunnel located 250 feet beneath Lake Erie. Eleven people died along with the ten rescuers sent in to help them. Called in six hours later, after the incident, Morgan and his crew pulled two workers out alive and recovered all the bodies of the others. He personally gave CPR to one of the men he rescued. This brought on many new orders, however, after people in the south saw it was a black man’s company, they went on and canceled their orders. Years later, The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission reviewed the reports of heroism displayed during that disaster and being that Morgan was black, gave it to a white man instead of the man who truly deserved it. In 1920, Morgan moved into the newspaper business. The paper was called the “Cleveland Call. Today it is the “Cleveland Call and Post.” As the years went by, Morgan became very prosperous and widely respected in the business world. He was able to purchase a home and a car made by Henry Ford. He was the first Af ro-American to purchase a car in Cleveland. His experience driving in that car prompted him to invent an improvement to traffic lights. This was after witnessing a crash between a car and a horse drawn carriage. The Morgan traffic signal was a T shaped pole unit that featured three positions, stop, go, and an all-directional stop position. The third position halted traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross the streets more safely. His hand cranked semaphore traffic management device was in use through the U.S. until all manual traffic signals were replaced by the automatic red, yellow, and green traffic lights currently used today. Morgan sold the rights to his traffic signal for 40,000 to GE Corporation. Outside of his inventing career, Morgan diligently supported the African American community throughout his lifetime. He was a member of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was active in the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, donated to Negro col leges and opened an all-Black country club. Though he passed away beforehand, he was recognized at the Emancipation Centennial Celebration in Chicago in 1963. Schools and streets were named after him. He was also included in the 2002 book, 100 great African Americans. Along with many others, Morgan lost most of his wealth with the stock market crash, but it never stopped his inventive nature. He began developing glaucoma in 1943 and lost most of his sight as a result. The accomplished inventor died in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 27, 1963, at the age of 86, shortly before the celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation Centennial, an event he had been waiting for. Just before his death, Morgan was honored by the U.S. government for his traffic signal invention, and was eventually restored to his place in history as a hero of the Lake Erie rescue. Morgan improved and saved countless lives worldwide, including those of firefighters, soldiers, and vehicle operators, with his profound inventions. His work provided the blueprint for many important advancements that came later and continues to inspire and serve as a basis for research conducted by modern-day inventors and engineers.

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