Did you know that Garrett Morgan patented the traffic signal? Well, you wouldn’t be the first not to know. In addition to the traffic signal, his other inventions included an improved sewing machine, a hair-straightening product, and a respiratory device that later was the blueprint for World War I gas masks.
Born on March 4, 1877 in Paris, Kentucky, Morgan was seventh of eleven children. His mother, Elizabeth (Reed) Morgan, was of Indian and African descent. It is uncertain whether Morgan’s father was Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan or Sydney Morgan, a former slave freed in 1863. But Morgan’s mixed race heritage would play a part in his business dealings as an adult.
In his mid-teens, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and found work as a handyman for a wealthy landowner. Although he only had an elementary school education, Morgan was able to pay for lessons from a private tutor. However, jobs at several sewing-machine factories eventually captured his attention and determined his future. After learning the inner workings of the machines, Morgan obtained a patent for an improved sewing machine and opened his own repair business.
Morgan’s business was successful and established a life in Cleveland. He also married a Bavarian woman named Mary Anne Hassek, with whom he had three sons. Almost immediately after this success, Morgan’s patented sewing machine would soon grant him financial freedom.
In 1909, Morgan was working in his newly opened tailoring shop—alongside Mary, who also happened to be a seamstress—when he came across woolen fabric that had been scorched by a sewing-machine needle. In that time, it was a common problem because the needles ran at such high speeds. Morgan experimented with a chemical solution to reduce friction created by the needle, and consequently noticed that the hairs were straighter on the cloth.
After testing his solution on a neighboring dog’s fur, Morgan finally tried the concoction on himself. When it worked, he quickly established the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company, selling the cream to African Americans. 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,” which gave its wearers a safer breathing experience in the presence of smoke, gases, and other pollutants. He worked hard to market the device, especially to fire departments, often personally demonstrating. The invention earned him the first prize at the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in New York City.
However, in the South, there was some resistance to the devices among buyers. The racial tension remained high despite advancements in African-American rights. To counteract the resistance, Morgan hired a white actor to act as “the inventor” during presentations of his breathing device while he disguised himself as the inventor’s sidekick, a Native American man named “Big Chief Mason”, and wore the hood in demonstrations. The tactic proved successful and sales of the device were brisk, especially from firefighters and rescue workers. Eventually, Morgan’s breathing device became the prototype for the gas masks used during World War I, protecting soldiers from toxic gas used in warfare.
Due to Morgan’s voracious and observant nature, he focused on fixing problems, and soon turned his attention to car parts. He honed his mechanical skills and developed a friction drive clutch. In 1923, after witnessing a carriage accident at a particularly problematic city intersection, he created a new kind of traffic signal, one with a warning light to alert drivers that they would need to stop. The inventor quickly acquired patents for his traffic signal—a rudimentary version of the modern three-way traffic light—in the United States, Britain, and Canada, but eventually sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000.
Morgan died on August 27, 1963, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Morgan’s legacy improved and saved countless lives, especially firefighters, soldiers, and vehicle operators, with his impressive inventions worldwide. His work was the blueprint for many important inventions 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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