Sometimes the inventions with the biggest impact were those that were never intended to be. Accidental discoveries while seeking to create something else have contributed to and shaped our country and the world into what we have today. Garrett Augustus Morgan did just that, and without ever seeking to create the newest hair pomade, open a hair care school, or incorporate a hair invention, his discovery has had the biggest impact on black hair to date. His story continues…
Garrett Augustus Morgan, 1877 – 1963: An African American inventor, businessman, and community leader
Born in Paris, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877, Garrett Augustus Morgan was the seventh of 11 children. His mother, Elizabeth (Reed) Morgan, was of Indian and African descent, and the daughter of a Baptist minister. It is uncertain whether Morgan’s father was Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan or Sydney Morgan, a former slave freed in 1863. Morgan’s mixed race heritage would play a part in his business dealings as an adult. When Morgan was in his mid teens, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to look for work, and found it as a handyman to a wealthy landowner. Although he only completed an elementary school education, Morgan was able to pay for more lessons from a private tutor. But jobs at several sewing-machine factories were to soon capture his imagination and determine his future. Learning the inner workings of the machines and how to fix them, Morgan obtained a patent for an improved sewing machine and opened his own repair business. Morgan’s business was a success, and it enabled him to marry a Bavarian woman named Mary Anne Hassek, and establish himself in Cleveland. (He and his wife would have three sons during their marriage.)
Contributions to Hair
It is here that his accidental discovery occurred.
In 1909, Morgan was working with sewing machines in his newly opened tailoring shop—a business he had opened with wife Mary, who had experience as a seamstress—when he encountered woolen fabric that had been scorched by a sewing-machine needle. It was a common problem at the time, since sewing-machine needles ran at such high speeds. In hopes of alleviating the problem, Morgan experimented with a chemical solution in an effort to reduce friction created by the needle, and subsequently noticed that the hairs of the cloth were straighter. After trying his solution to good effect on a neighboring dog’s fur, Morgan finally tested the concoction on himself. When that worked, he quickly established the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company and sold the cream to African Americans. The company was incredibly successful, bringing Morgan financial security and allowing him to pursue other interests.
His curiosity and innovation led to the development of many useful and helpful products. Among his inventions was an early traffic signal, for which he is best known. After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan was convinced that something should be done to improve traffic safety. Morgan was one of the first to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for a traffic signal. The patent was granted on November 20, 1923. Morgan later had the technology patented in Great Britain and Canada. He also invented a zigzag stitching attachment for manually operated sewing machine.
Morgan filed a patent application for the Morgan’s American Safety Helmet on August 19, 1912, which proved an enormous success, winning several prizes at international exhibitions. This device was described as an apparatus which could “provide a portable attachment which will enable a fireman to enter a house filled with thick suffocating gasses and smoke and to breathe freely for some time therein, and thereby enable him to perform his duties of saving lives and valuables without danger to himself.” Its mechanism was simple: the hood had two tubes which trailed down to the floor, where fresh air could be obtained (assuming that, as in a fire, the fumes to be avoided were warmer or lighter than air); there was no filtration of the air in his first models. A backpack-like air reservoir provided a small amount of unpressurized reserve air.
Morgan demonstrated the hood for numerous fire departments; in the South, he was forced to pose as an “Indian” assistant and hire a white man to pretend to be “Mr. Morgan” in order to sell his product in those Jim Crow times. A later model was marketed for use in World War I, but was not in fact the ancestor of the later, filter-based masks which eventually became a military standard. Mustard gas, alas, was heavier than air, and so Morgan’s hood offered little protection against it. It was not, as some have implied, the first of its kind, nor was it the direct ancestor of the filtration-based masks of later years.
Nevertheless, Morgan’s safety hood was a significant invention in the field of fire and disaster aid when Morgan made national news for using this safety hood, or gas mask, to rescue several men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel beneath Lake Erie. Called the 1916 Lake Erie Crib Disaster, on July 25,1916, an explosion ripped through a tunnel in the construction “crib” five miles offshore and 200 feet under Lake Erie. More than a dozen men were trapped in the tunnel, which quickly filled with smoke and poisonous gases. Someone at the scene, having heard of Morgan’s safety helmet, contacted him. Morgan, still in his pajamas and robe (it was around three in the morning), quickly summoned his brother Frank and a neighbor and rushed to the scene with Morgan hoods. Morgan tested the helmets at the scene, and realized that the pressure down in the tunnel might very well render them of little value, but descended anyway, accompanied by his brother Frank and a man with the (today notable) name of Tom Clancy. Entering the tunnel, the three men descended more then 200 feet into total darkness before finding one of the workers. They dragged him back to the surface and returned to find others. They made several trips until they had saved more than twenty lives. Due to racial prejudice, Morgan’s name was not put forward by Cleveland officials for the Carnegie Medal for Heroism, which was awarded to several white men (Clancy among them) who had assisted with the rescue. Nonetheless, a committee of prominent Clevelanders honored Morgan for his bravery, awarding him a solid gold diamond-studded medal. The inscription read, “To Garrett A. Morgan, Our Most honored and Bravest Citizen.”
Outside of his inventing career, Morgan diligently supported the African-American community throughout his lifetime. He was a member of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was active in the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, donated to Negro colleges and opened an all-black country club. Additionally, in 1920, he launched the African-American newspaper the Cleveland Call (later named the Call and Post).
End of Life
Morgan began developing glaucoma in 1943, and lost most of his sight as a result. The accomplished inventor died in Cleveland, Ohio, on August 27, 1963, one month before the anniversary reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, an event that he had been looking forward to.
Just before his death, Garrett Augustus Morgan was honored by the U.S. government for his traffic signal invention, and he was eventually restored to his place in history as a hero of the Lake Erie rescue. Morgan’s improved and saved countless lives worldwide, including those of firefighters, soldiers and vehicle operators, with his profound inventions. His work provided the blueprint for many important advancements that came later, and continues to inspire and serve as a basis for research conducted by modern-day inventors and engineers.
http://www.biography.com/people/garrett-morgan-9414691?page=1; http://www.ric.edu/faculty/rpotter/morgan.html; http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/garrett-morgan-inventor-one-first-traffic-lights