Garrett Morgan, Inventor Extraordinaire

From Uncle John’s “dustbin of history” files, here’s the story of Garrett Morgan, a man who nearly a century ago invented a lot of stuff that’s still used today.

Garrett MorganThe son of former slaves, Morgan was born in Kentucky but moved to Ohio while a teenager in the 1890s. He found work as a handyman, but showed an amazing talent for working with machines. He saved up enough money to open a sewing machine repair shop, and then a shoe repair shop. It was in these two places that he did his best thinking and tinkering, and came up with two amazing and disparate inventions. 

The Gas Mask

In the early 1900s, firefighters didn’t have a lot of protective equipment, and the profession had a high fatality rate due to smoke inhalation. So in 1912, Morgan invented “The Safety Hood and Smoke Protector.” It was a mask attached to an air intake tube that stretched to the ground, where less smoky air came in. Then it traveled through a wet sponge that served as a filter and cooler, turning the smoky air into breathable air. He patented it, but it was adopted by firehouses around the country after Morgan and three friends used the masks to personally rescue 32 men that had been trapped in an underground tunnel during a mining accident off of Lake Erie. His design led to the development of more sophisticated gas masks, such as the one American soldiers wore in World War I against German chemical attacks. 

The Three-Light Traffic Light

Morgan’s shops were in downtown Cleveland, a chaotic mess in the 1920s as pedestrians, horse-pulled wagons, cars, and streetcars all jockeyed for position. Simple “stop/go” lights set on a timer switched over abruptly, giving no warning and leading to many being caught in an intersection on a sudden “stop” red light—where they’d get struck by whoever just as abruptly got a green “go” signal. What Morgan figured was needed was a transitional period between the stop and go, a warning to clear the intersections. In 1923, he patented a three-position electric traffic signal. Between the red and green lights: a yellow light. The first three-light traffic light in the nation was installed in Cleveland.

Among Morgan’s other achievements:

  • He invented a primitive version of the hair straightening iron.
  • He added improvements to the electric sewing machine.
  • He founded and ran the Cleveland Call, one of the first African-American newspapers in the United States.