Garrett Morgan - Traffic Light, Inventions & Gas Mask

Garrett Morgan’s inventions, which included ones for a hair-straightening product, a breathing device, a revised sewing machine, and an enhanced traffic signal, paved the way for other African American innovators to follow in his footsteps create groundbreaking innovations.

Who Was Garrett Morgan?

Garrett Morgan began his job in the textile industry as a sewing machine mechanic despite having only completed elementary school. He received patents for some inventions, including the improved sewing machine and traffic signal, a hair-straightening product, and a respiratory device that would later serve as the model for World War I gas masks. The inventor died in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 27, 1963.

Early Life

Garrett Morgan was the seventh of 11 children and was the seventh kid to be born on March 4, 1877, in Paris, Kentucky. His mother, Elizabeth Reed, was of Indian and African origin and the daughter of a Baptist minister. He was named after his grandmother. His grandfather, John Hunt Morgan, was a Confederate colonel, and his father, Sydney, was a formerly enslaved person who was released in 1863. Morgan’s economic activities as an adult would be influenced by the fact that he is of mixed racial background.


Morgan came to Cincinnati, Ohio, in the middle of his teens to hunt for work. He found employment working as a handyman for a wealthy landowner. Morgan could pay for additional lessons from a private tutor even though he had only completed the elementary school level of his education. However, he found work at three different sewing machine companies, and these occupations would shape his career and grab his imagination. After understanding how the machines functioned internally and how to do repairs, Morgan was able to secure a patent for an improved sewing machine and launch his own repair business.

Because Morgan’s company was successful, he was able to settle in Cleveland, marry a woman from Bavaria whose name was Mary Anne Hassek, and start a family there. (During their marriage, he and his wife would be blessed with three boys.)

G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company

The momentum of Morgan’s economic success would soon be followed by the momentum of his innovative sewing machine, which would eventually pave the route to his financial emancipation, albeit in a very unconventional manner: Morgan came across a piece of woolen fabric that a sewing machine needle had burned in 1909 while he was working with sewing machines in his freshly opened tailoring shop. This was a business that Morgan had opened with his wife, Mary, who had previous experience working in the sewing industry. Because the needles in sewing machines moved at such a rapid pace, this was an extremely prevalent issue in that era. Morgan conducted experiments with a chemical solution to reduce the issue. His goal was to lessen the friction caused by the needle, and as a result of his efforts, he observed that the fabric’s fibers were more straight.

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Morgan decided to test his concoction on himself after it showed promising results when applied to the fur of a neighbor’s dog. After discovering that this method was successful, he moved rapidly to form the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company and began marketing the cream to African Americans. Because the company was so successful, Morgan could achieve financial stability and pursue other interests thanks to the opportunities it presented him.

Inventions: Breathing Device

Morgan developed a breathing device in 1914 called a “safety hood.” This hood allowed its wearers to have a more protected experience while breathing in smoke, fumes, and other pollutants. Morgan exerted much effort into marketing the gadget, particularly to fire agencies, and frequently demonstrated its reliability in fires firsthand. The breathing device invented by Morgan served as the prototype and forerunner of the gas masks that soldiers wore during World War I to protect them from the deadly gas utilized in combat. Because of his innovation, he was awarded first place at the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation, which took place in New York City.

There was some resistance among customers to Morgan’s gadgets, notably in the South, where racial animosity continued to be evident despite improvements in African American rights. This was particularly true in the South. Morgan hired a white actor to pose as “the inventor” during presentations of his breathing device. Morgan would then pose as the inventor’s sidekick, disguising himself as a Native American man named “Big Chief Mason,” and entering areas that were otherwise unsafe for breathing while wearing the hood of his disguise. This was Morgan’s strategy for overcoming the opposition to his products. The strategy was fruitful, as seen by the brisk business generated by the device, which was particularly popular among rescue professionals and firefighters.

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Cleveland Tunnel Explosion

In 1916, Cleveland began the excavation of a new tunnel beneath Lake Erie to create a new source of potable water. The miners were digging when they struck a pocket of natural gas, which caused a massive explosion and engulfed them in toxic gases and dust that caused them to become stuck beneath. When Morgan and his brother discovered the explosion, they immediately put on breathing apparatus, made their way to the tunnel, and went inside as quickly as possible. Before the search and rescue operation was called off, the brothers could recover two bodies and save two lives.

Despite his heroic actions, Morgan’s notoriety from the incident hindered sales; the public was now fully aware that Morgan was an African American, and many refused to purchase his wares. It is possible that another result of racial discrimination was that neither the inventor nor his brother received adequate recognition for their courageous efforts at Lake Erie. This was a significant setback for both individuals. Morgan’s efforts earned him a nomination for a Carnegie Medal, but in the end, he was not selected to receive the honor. In addition, some accounts of the explosion stated that other people were the ones who came to the rescue.

Later Inventions: Traffic Light

Morgan was a voracious inventor and observer who focused on fixing problems and soon turned his attention to all kinds of things, from hats to belt fasteners to car parts. While it is undeniably disheartening that the public did not acknowledge Morgan’s and his brother’s roles in the explosion that occurred in Cleveland, this fact does not change the fact that Morgan was a prolific inventor.

Morgan was the first Black man in Cleveland to buy an automobile. He created a friction drive clutch while working on his mechanical talents and was the first Black man in Cleveland to own a car. After observing a carriage accident at a particularly hazardous intersection in the city in 1923, he devised a novel design for a traffic signal the following year. His invention was a signal that included a warning light to indicate to drivers that they would need to come to a stop. Quickly acquiring patents in the United States, Britain, and Canada for his traffic signal, a primitive version of the present three-way traffic light, Morgan finally sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000.

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Social Activism

In addition to his work as an inventor, Morgan dedicated a significant portion of his life to providing constant assistance to the African American community. He participated in the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, gave money to African-American educational institutions, became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (which had just been established at the time), and founded an all-Black country club. In addition, in 1920, he published the first issue of the African American newspaper, the Cleveland Call (later named the Call and Post).

Death and Legacy

In 1943, Morgan experienced the first glaucoma symptoms, ultimately leading to the loss of most of his vision. The brilliant inventor passed away in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 27, 1963, just a few weeks before the commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation’s centenary, an occasion that he had been looking forward to. Morgan received recognition from the United States government for creating the traffic signal just before he passed away. He was eventually reinstated to his rightful place in history as a hero for his actions during the Lake Erie rescue.

Morgan’s revolutionary discoveries made a significant impact on people’s lives and saved a great number of them all across the world, including those of firefighters, soldiers, and vehicle operators. His work not only served as an inspiration and a foundation for the research that innovators and engineers are doing in the contemporary day, but it also supplied the blueprint for some significant innovations that occurred in the future.

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