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Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr.
March 4, 1877 - August 27, 1963
Inventor, Pioneer and Entrepreneur


Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. was an inventor who originated a respiratory protective hood (similar to the modern gas masks), invented a hair-straightening preparation, and patented a type of traffic signal. He is renowned for a heroic rescue in which he used his hood to save workers trapped in a tunnel system filled with fumes. He is credited as the first African-American in Cleveland to own an automobile.

At the age of fourteen, Morgan moved north to Cincinnati, Ohio, in search of employment. Most of his teenage years were spent working as a handyman for a wealthy Cincinnati landowner. Like many African-Americans of his day, Morgan had to quit school at a young age, in order to work. However, the teen-aged Morgan was able to hire his own tutor and continued his studies while living in Cincinnati. In 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. He married Madge Nelson in 1896, but the marriage ended in divorce. Word of his skill at fixing things and experimenting spread quickly throughout Cleveland opening up various opportunities for him.

In 1907, Morgan opened his own sewing machine and shoe repair shop. It was the first of several businesses he would own. In 1908, Morgan helped found the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. That same year, he married Mary Anne Hassek and together they had three sons. In 1909, he expanded his business to include a tailoring shop. The company made coats, suits, dresses, etc. - all sewn with equipment that Morgan himself had made. Morgan experimented with a liquid that gave sewing machine needles a high polish and prevented the needle from scorching fabric as it sewed. Accidentally, Morgan discovered that this liquid not only straightened fabric but also hair. He made the liquid into a cream and began the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company. Morgan also made a black hair oil dye and a curved-tooth Iron comb in 1910, to straighten hair.

In 1920, Morgan moved into the newspaper business when he established The Cleveland Call. As the years passed, he became a prosperous and widely respected businessman, and he was able to purchase a house and an automobile.

[edit] Safety hood

Garrett Morgan invented the safety hood and smoke protector after hearing about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. He was able to sell his invention around the country, although in many instances, he would have a white partner take credit as the inventor in order to further sell his product. When he displayed it himself, he became "Big Chief Mason", a full-blooded Indian from the Walpole Island Indian Reservation in Canada." His invention became known nationally when he used it to save several men from a 1916 tunnel explosion under Lake Erie. Garrett was awarded a gold Medal of Bravery by prominent citizens of Cleveland, but his nomination for the Carnegie Medal was denied, in large part because of his race. Efforts by Morgan and his supporters over the years to correct this injustice have not been successful. Nevertheless, Morgan's invention won gold medals from the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety.

Some claim that Morgan did not invent the "gas mask", however, those references are usually in reference to the "respirator." Morgan invented the safety hood and later revised it, which was used to save trapped workers in the Lake Erie Crib Disaster of 1916. His safety hood eventually evolved to become a type of gas mask.

[edit] Traffic signal

The first American-made automobiles were introduced to U.S. consumers just before the turn of the 20th Century, and pedestrians, bicycles, animal-drawn wagons and motor vehicles all had to share the same roads. Between 1912 and 1920, many different versions of electric traffic signals were invented and installed throughout the U.S. In 1923, Morgan patented his own version. The Morgan traffic signal was a T-shaped pole unit that featured three hand-cranked 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. Its one "advantage" over others of its type was the ability to operate it from a distance using a mechanical linkage, though there were already dozens of automatic systems patented and in use by 1923, and in all other respects, his resembled earlier versions. The story nevertheless has been widely and erroneously circulated that Morgan's signal was the basis of later types of traffic signals.

Another piece of popular lore is that Morgan sold his invention to the General Electric Company for $40,000 - a huge sum by the standards of the day. Because no records of this very large transaction have been discovered, it is likely untrue.

[edit] Awards and recognitions

At the Emancipation Centennial Celebration in Chicago, Illinois in August 1963, Morgan was nationally recognized. Although in ill-health, and nearly blind, he continued to work on his inventions; one of his last was a self-extinguishing cigarette, which employed a small plastic pellet filled with water, placed just before the filter. Shortly before his death, in 1963, Morgan was awarded a citation for his traffic signal by the United States Government.

In Prince George's County, Maryland, the Prince George's County Board renamed Summerfield Boulevard to Garrett A. Morgan Boulevard in his honor. The adjacent Washington Metro's Morgan Boulevard Station was going to be named Summerfield, but was consequently renamed as well. In 1991, the Division Avenue Water Works in Cleveland was renamed the Garrett Morgan Treatment Plant. Also in his honor is the Garrett A. Morgan Cleveland School of Science in Cleveland, Ohio.

Morgan was a Prince Hall Freemason and an honorary member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter organization established for African Americans.

Morgan died on August 27, 1963