Biography of Garrett Morgan, Inventor of the Gas Mask

Garrett Morgan

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Garrett Morgan (March 4, 1877–July 27, 1963) was an inventor and businessman from Cleveland who is best known for inventing a device called the Morgan Safety Hood and Smoke Protector in 1914. The invention was later dubbed the gas mask.

Fast Facts: Garrett Morgan

  • Known For: Invention of safety hood (early gas mask) and mechanical traffic signal
  • Born: March 4, 1877 in Claysville, Kentucky
  • Parents: Sydney Morgan, Elizabeth Reed
  • Died: July 27, 1963 in Cleveland, Ohio
  • Education: Up to sixth grade
  • Published Works: The Cleveland Call, a weekly African American newspaper that he established in 1916, which became the still-published Cleveland Call and Post in 1929
  • Awards and Honors: Recognized at the Emancipation Centennial Celebration in Chicago, Illinois, in August 1963; schools and streets named in his honor; included in the 2002 book, 100 Greatest African Americans by Molefi Kete Asante; honorary member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity
  • Spouse(s): Madge Nelson, Mary Hasek
  • Children: John P. Morgan, Garrett A. Morgan, Jr., and Cosmo H. Morgan
  • Notable Quote: “If you can be the best, then why not try to be the best?” 

Early Life

The son of former slaves, Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in Claysville, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877. His mother was half-Native American and half-white (her father was a white minister named Rev. Garrett Reed), and his father was half-white, the son of the Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan, who led Morgan's Raiders in the Civil War. Garrett was the seventh of 11 children, and his early childhood was spent attending school and working on the family farm with his brothers and sisters. While still a teenager, he left Kentucky and moved north to Cincinnati, Ohio, in search of opportunities.

Although Morgan's formal education never took him beyond elementary school, he worked to give himself an education, hiring a tutor while living in Cincinnati and continuing his studies in English grammar. In 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he went to work as a sewing machine repairman for a clothing manufacturer, teaching himself as much as he could about sewing machinery and experimenting with the process. Word of his experiments and his proficiency for fixing things traveled fast and he worked for numerous manufacturing firms in the Cleveland area.

In 1907, the inventor opened his sewing equipment and repair shop. It was the first of several businesses he would establish. In 1909, he expanded the enterprise to include a tailoring shop that employed 32 people. The new company turned out coats, suits, and dresses, all sewn with equipment that Morgan himself had made.

Marriage and Family

Morgan married twice, first to Madge Nelson in 1896; they were divorced in 1898. In 1908 he married Mary Anna Hasek, a seamstress from Bohemia: it was one of the earliest interracial marriages in Cleveland. They had three children, John P., Garrett A., Jr., and Cosmo H. Morgan.

The Safety Hood (Early Gas Mask)

In 1914, Morgan was awarded two patents for the invention of an early gas mask, the Safety Hood and Smoke Protector. He manufactured the mask and sold it nationally and internationally through the National Safety Device Company, or Nadsco, using a marketing strategy to avoid Jim Crow discrimination—what historian Lisa Cook calls "anonymity by dissociation." At the time, entrepreneurs sold their inventions by conducting live demonstrations. Morgan appeared in these events to the general public, with municipal fire departments and city officials representing himself as his own assistant—a Native American man called "Big Chief Mason." In the south, Morgan hired whites, sometimes public safety professionals, to stage demonstrations for him. His newspaper advertisements featured smartly dressed white male models.

The gas mask proved very popular: New York City quickly adopted the mask, and eventually 500 cities followed suit. In 1916, a refined model of Morgan's gas mask was awarded a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety and another gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

The Lake Erie Crib Disaster

On July 25, 1916, Morgan made national news for using his gas mask to rescue men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel located 250 feet beneath Lake Erie. No one had been able to reach the men, 11 of them had died as had 10 others attempting to rescue them. Called in the middle of the night six hours after the incident, Morgan and a team of volunteers donned the new "gas masks" and brought two workers out alive and recovered the bodies of 17 others. He personally gave artificial respiration to one of the men he rescued.

Afterward, Morgan's company received many additional requests from fire departments around the country that wished to purchase the new masks. However, the national news contained photographs of him, and officials in a number of southern cities canceled their existing orders when they discovered he was black.

In 1917, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission reviewed the reports of heroism displayed during the disaster. Based on news reports that downplayed Morgan's role, the Carnegie board decided to give the prestigious "Hero" award to a minor figure in the rescue effort who was white, rather than to Morgan. Morgan protested, but the Carnegie Institution said he hadn't risked as much as the other person had because he had safety equipment.

Some reports say the Morgan gas mask was modified and used in World War I after the Germans unleashed chemical warfare at Ypres on April 22, 1915, although there's no strong evidence for it. Despite Morgan's popularity in the United States, there were dozens of other masks on the market by then, and most used in WWI were of English or French manufacture.

The Morgan Traffic Signal

In 1920, Morgan moved into the newspaper business when he established the Cleveland Call. As the years went on, he became a prosperous and widely respected businessman and was able to purchase a home and an automobile, invented by Henry Ford in 1903. In fact, Morgan was the first African-American to purchase an automobile in Cleveland, and it was Morgan's experience while driving along the streets of that city that inspired him to invent an improvement to traffic signals.

After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan took his turn at inventing a traffic signal. While other inventors had experimented with, marketed, and even patented traffic signals, Morgan was one of the first to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for an inexpensive way to produce a traffic signal. The patent was granted on November 20, 1923. Morgan also had his invention patented in Great Britain and Canada.

Morgan stated in his patent for the traffic signal:

"This invention relates to traffic signals, and particularly to those which are adapted to be positioned adjacent the intersection of two or more streets and are manually operable for directing the flow of traffic...In addition, my invention contemplates the provision of a signal which may be readily and cheaply manufactured."

The Morgan traffic signal was a T-shaped pole unit that featured three positions: Stop, Go and an all-directional stop position. This "third position" halted traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross streets more safely.

Morgan's hand-cranked semaphore traffic management device was in use throughout North America until all manual traffic signals were replaced by the automatic red, yellow and green-light traffic signals currently used around the world. The inventor sold the rights to his traffic signal to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000.

Other Inventions

Throughout his life, Morgan was always experimenting to develop new concepts. Though the traffic signal came at the height of his career and became one of his most famous inventions, it was just one of several innovations he developed, manufactured, and sold over the years.

Morgan invented a zig-zag stitching attachment for ​the manually operated sewing machine. He also founded a company that made personal grooming products such as hair dying ointments and the curved-tooth pressing comb.

As word of Morgan's life-saving inventions spread across North America and England, demand for these products grew. He was frequently invited to conventions and public exhibitions to demonstrate how his inventions worked.

Death

Along with many others, Morgan lost most of his wealth with the stock market crash, but it didn't stop his inventive nature. He developed glaucoma, but at the time of his death he was still working on a new invention: a self-extinguishing cigarette.

Morgan died on August 27, 1963, at the age of 86. His life was long and full, and his creative energies were recognized both during and after his lifetime.

Legacy

Morgan's inventions have had a tremendous impact on the safety and well-being of people all over the world—from miners to soldiers to first responders to ordinary car owners and pedestrians. Another ongoing legacy is his weekly newspaper, originally named the Cleveland Call and now called the Cleveland Call and Post. His achievements as a son of slaves, against all odds and in the face of Jim Crow era discrimination, are inspiring.

Case Western University awarded him an honorary degree, and his papers are stored there. 

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