Garrett Morgan, born March 4, 1877, was the seventh of 11 children born to Elizabeth (Reed) Morgan, a woman of African American and Native American descent, the daughter of Baptist minister Rev. Garrett Reed, in Paris, Kentucky. His father, Sydney Morgan, was the mixed-race son and former slave of Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan, of fame during the Civil War, and a mixed-race slave.
Growing up during Reconstruction in the south, opportunities for both education and work were limited, if not non-existent. Because of this, Morgan, with only a 5th-grade education, left home at the age of 14 and moved to Cincinnati, OH, where he captured work as a handyman for a wealthy family. However, after four years, he grew restless and unfulfilled. Subsequently, in 1895, he moved to Cleveland, OH, where his fortunes changed for the better.
With a natural curiosity for all things mechanical, Morgan taught himself everything he needed to know about sewing machines, thus was able to find employment in Cleveland as a sewing machine repair person and adjuster with the . For several years, Morgan would continue this type of work for not just Root & McBride, but also other sewing machine and dry goods companies throughout Cleveland.
It was in 1901 he began to establish himself as an inventor. It was while he was employed by Root & McBride, he invented a sewing machine belt fastener. He may or may not have patented it, but he sold it to this boss for $150, which is equivalent to $4,167.50 in 2018 dollars.
It was in 1907, when Garrett Morgan went to work as a machinist at the Prince-Wolf Company, he met his wife, Mary Hasek, an immigrant from Bavaria. Following his marriage to Mary in 1908, with his wife by his side, he used their savings to open a sewing machine repair shop and flourished, in spite of the difficulties African Americans could face. Morgan’s motto became, “If a man puts something to block your way, the first time you go around it, the second time you go over it, and the third time you go through it.”
Within a year, Morgan’s sewing machine shop had grown to include a tailoring section, which employed 32 persons, all using machines he had developed and built himself. What made his tailor shop unusual and in demand was they not only made adult clothing, they created a line of children’s clothes, too.
However, Morgan didn’t stop with just one or two inventions. In 1923, following what was described as a spectacular accident between a car and a horse-drawn buggy, he was led to invent an improvement to the existing traffic light system, which was to use two lights, red for stop, green for go. Morgan added a third light, yellow, so vehicles and carts in the intersection had time to clear it before cars began coming from the other direction. Concerned his being black would scare away potential investors, Morgan sold his patent to General Electric for $40,000 (which would be roughly equivalent to $572,600 in today’s dollars).
However, what he’s best known for is an invention he patented in 1914 for a Breathing Apparatus, now commonly known as a gas mask.
The general public was leery of this new device, until July 25, 1916, when there was under Lake Erie and 32 men were trapped with natural gas threatening their lives. Morgan offered the use of his breathing apparatus, but no one trusted it. He then gathered a group of volunteers, each of them, Morgan and his brother Frank included, donned their masks and, one-by-one, went below and . Because of the effectiveness of his breathing apparatus, this was the beginning of the popularity of what was referred to as the Morgan National Safety Hood.
As word spread across the country, Morgan became famous not just for his saving people from the collapse that day in Cleveland, but also for his invention. Considered a hero in Cleveland, many of the newspaper accounts didn’t mention his name. Thus, the following year, when the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission was giving awards for the heroics of all involved that day, Morgan was ignored. His name was left out of most newspaper accounts because he was black. Most news accounts listed not Morgan, but a white man named Tom Clancy, as the hero of the day.
There’s a side note to the Carnegie award and Garrett Morgan’s reaction to being left out. The magazine Popular Mechanics wrote an about the innovations of Morgan and contacted the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission regarding this slight. The author added this footnote on the story:
“The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission disputes the idea that Morgan’s race had anything to do with his not receiving the award, pointing us to a 1917 letter by commission manager F. M. Wilmot that reads: “While the act performed by Mr. Morgan is commendable, from the facts at hand it does not appear that it was attended by any extraordinary risk to his own life; and for this reason his case, I regret to say, does not come within the scope of the fund.”
Morgan himself clearly believed race was a factor, though, and that he had indeed put his life on the line. He wrote a letter to Mayor Davis, which you can read , in which he is miffed at Davis (who at the site of the rescue proclaimed Morgan a hero) for not vouching for him in this matter. It concludes by saying that the treatment he received is enough “to make me and the members of my race feel [that you] will not give a colored man a square deal.”
Following the Lake Erie explosion, though, the government began supplying these gas masks to their soldiers in World War I. In addition to the government, fire departments began using the device, too, so they could enter buildings on fire and save people who were trapped.
Garrett Morgan, grandson to a Confederate Civil War Colonel, inventor of devices designed to save lives, died at the age of 86 following a long-term illness on July 27, 1963, in Cleveland, OH. He is interred at , in Euclid, OH.