Biography: Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan, African American innovator. Public Domain

Garrett Morgan 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 son of former slaves, Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky on March 4, 1877. 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 hired a tutor while living in Cincinnati and continued 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. Word of his proficiency for fixing things and experimenting traveled fast and led to numerous job offers from various manufacturing firms in the Cleveland area.

In 1907, the inventor opened his own 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 employees. The new company turned out coats, suits and dresses, all sewn with equipment that Morgan himself had made.

In 1920, Morgan moved into the newspaper business when he established the Cleveland Call newspaper. As the years went on, he became a prosperous and widely respected business man and was able to purchase a home and an automobile.

Indeed, it was Morgan's experience while driving along the streets of Cleveland that inspired him to invent an improvement to traffic signals.

Gas Mask

On July 25, 1916, Morgan made national news for using a gas mask he invented to rescue 32 men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel located 250 feet beneath Lake Erie.

Morgan and a team of volunteers had donned the new "gas masks" and went to the rescue. Afterward, Morgan's company received requests from fire departments around the country who wished to purchase the new masks.

The Morgan gas mask was later refined for use by the U.S. Army during World War I. In 1914, Morgan was awarded a patent for the invention, the Safety Hood and Smoke Protector. Two years later, a refined model of his early 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 Morgan Traffic Signal

The first American-made automobiles were introduced to U.S. consumers shortly before the turn of the century. The Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 and soon American consumers began to discover the adventures of the open road. In the early years of the 20th century it was not uncommon for bicycles, animal-powered wagons and new gasoline-powered motor vehicles to share the same streets and roadways with pedestrians. This led to a high frequency of accidents.

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. Shortly before his death in 1963, Garrett Morgan was awarded a citation for his traffic signal by the United States Government.

Other Inventions

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

Morgan invented a zig-zag stitching attachment for 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.

Morgan died on August 27, 1963 at the age of 86. His life was long and full, and his creative energies have given us a marvelous and lasting legacy.