Club History Moment: Hidden Figures of Innovation 3

Thursday, February 18, 2021 By: Monica M Smith
Club Historian Monica Smith introduces us to another "Hidden Figure of Innovation."

Thank you again, President Nancy, for giving me this special opportunity to talk about a few “Hidden Figures of Innovation” in observance of Black History Month.

Today, I will share the story of arguably one of the most famous, prolific, and well-documented inventors, Garrett A. Morgan…yet it’s likely that most people don’t know much, if anything, about him. That said, some of you who live here may be aware that there is a Garrett A. Morgan Boulevard in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and the adjacent Blue and Silver Line Metro stop Morgan Boulevard also bears his name.

Morgan was born in Kentucky on March 4, 1877, about a decade after the American Civil War. His father was Sydney Morgan, who had been a slave and was also probably the son of his previous owner, Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan. Garrett’s mother was Eliza Reed, who was the daughter of a Baptist minister and had both Native American and Black heritage. Garrett Morgan’s mixed-race heritage would play a part in his business dealings as an adult. He had six years of education at a segregated school before leaving home at age 14 to move to Cincinnati, Ohio. There he worked for as a handyman for a wealthy White landowner and used some of his earnings to hire a tutor to continue his education. In 1895, he moved to Cleveland where he began repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. This experience sparked Morgan's interest in how things worked and, not only did he build a reputation for fixing them, he also developed his first invention—a belt fastener for sewing machines.

Morgan went into business for himself in 1907, establishing a shop to repair and sell sewing machines. Two years later, he opened a tailoring shop. During this time, Morgan experimented with a liquid that gave sewing machine needles a high polish to prevent the needles from burning fabric as they sewed. This led Morgan to discovering accidentally that the liquid could also straighten Black hair. He made the liquid into a cream and launched the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company to market it. He also made a Black hair oil dye and invented a curved-tooth comb for hair straightening. This company offered a complete line of hair-care products and earned him enough money to invest into other inventions.

Inspired by the problem of firefighters dealing with smoke inhalation, Morgan invented a safety helmet to protect the wearer from smoke and ammonia, introducing his “Breathing Device” in 1912, for which he received US Patent Number 1,090,036 two years later and then established the National Safety Device Company. He famously used the safety helmet  to descend into a gas-filled tunnel beneath Lake Erie to rescue workers and retrieve bodies after the Cleveland Waterworks explosion on July 25. 1916.

Despite the demonstrated need, Morgan had troubling selling the potentially life-saving equipment—White people did not want to buy a product made by a Black inventor. So Morgan sought the advice of the incredibly wealthy and famous White financier J.P. Morgan—no relation—with whom he struck up a surprising friendship. J.P. suggested removing “Garrett A.” and calling it simply the “Morgan Safety Hood.” He also started hiring White actors to conduct demonstrations and sales at firefighter conventions. Occasionally, Garrett Morgan himself even dressed up like an Indian chief, “Big Chief Mason,” perhaps a nod to his mother’s ancestry. The plan worked and not only did Morgan sell the hood to fire departments throughout the country, but he also won a contract with the US Navy. By 1917, a year after the Lake Erie disaster, this type of hood was standard equipment for the US Army during World War I although they used British and French designs as well.

American city streets of the 19102-20s were a chaotic mess of pedestrians, carriages, wagons, horses, bicycles, and early cars. Safety measures were nearly nonexistent, and accidents were common. Although traffic lights did exist at the time, in 1923 he received US Patent Number 1,475,024 for his “traffic signal” invention.  Morgan’s T-shaped signal “stopped vehicles in both directions before changing the direction of traffic flow. This brief pause reduced the possibility of a collision caused by a vehicle continuing in motion after the STOP signal was displayed. The safety interval was standardized in a different traffic signal that superseded Morgan's design: the three-position signal with red, amber and green lenses.”[1] Apparently concerned that racism against Blacks would again dissuade potential buyers, evidence suggests that Morgan sold the patent to the General Electric Company for $40,000 (about $612,000 today). General Electric took his patent and installed three-armed traffic signals in cities across the country.

In addition to his inventive achievements, Morgan co-founded the Cleveland Call, a weekly newspaper that was a predecessor of what became the city’s major African-American newspaper, the Call and Post. Morgan also helped found the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, where he served as treasurer until it merged with the NAACP and he remained a lifetime member. Using earnings from his traffic signal patent sale, he bought a farm near Wakeman, Ohio, and established the all-Black Wakeman Country Club in an age of segregated clubs. In addition, Morgan was a member of Excelsior Lodge #11 of the Prince Hall Freemasons, a branch of North American Freemasonry for African Americans founded by Prince Hall in 1784 when he was denied membership in a White Masonic Lodge in Boston.
Morgan married Madge Nelson in 1896; they divorced apparently only two years later. In 1908, he married a White woman, Mary Hasek (1884-1968), with whom he had three sons: John, Garrett Jr., and Cosmo. Later in life Morgan developed glaucoma and lost most of his sight as a result. The accomplished inventor—sometimes dubbed “The Black Edison”—died in Cleveland on July 27 [not August 27, as reported in some sources] in 1963, shortly before the celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation centennial—an event at which he was honored as a pioneering citizen. In 2005, Morgan was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for both his gas mask and three-way traffic signal.

To read more:
[1] See: Note that Morgan’s traffic signal is part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History collections.