Garrett A. Morgan

From Academic Kids

Garrett Augustus Morgan (March 4, 1877, Paris, Kentucky - August 27, 1963, Cleveland, Ohio) was an African American inventor who originated a respiratory protective hood, 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.


Early life

His parents were former slaves. Morgan spent his childhood attending school and working with his brothers and sisters on the family farm. While in his teens, he moved north to Cincinnati, Ohio in search of employment.

Morgan spent most of his teenage years 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 teenaged Morgan hired his own tutor, and continued his studies while living in Cincinnati.

In 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio. There, he worked as a sewing machine repairman for a clothing manufacturer. News of his skill at fixing things and experimenting spread quickly throughout Cleveland.

Morgan married Madge Nelson in 1896; they were divorced in 1898.

In 1907, Morgan opened his own sewing machine and repair shop. It was the first of several businesses he would own. In 1909, he expanded his business to include a tailoring shop that provided jobs for 32 employees. The company made coats, suits, dresses, etc. - all sewn with equipment that Morgan himself had made.

In 1908, Morgan helped found the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. The same year, he married Mary Hasek. In due course they had three sons.

Morgan was a prominent member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans.

The safety hood and smoke protector

In 1912, Morgan invented the safety hood and smoke protector after hearing about the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. He was able to sell his invention around the country however in many instances he would have a white partner take credit as the inventor in order to further sell his product.His invention became known nationally when he used it to save 9 men from a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie. Garrett's bravery went unnoticed because of his race. Fire Departments around the country wanted the smoke masks. The invention won gold medals from the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety.

The Garrett Morgan traffic signal

In 1920, Morgan moved into the newspaper business when he established The Cleveland Call. As the years went on, he became a prosperous and widely respected business man, and he was able to purchase a home and an automobile. He is reported to have been the first African American to own an automobile. It was Morgan's experience while driving along the streets of Cleveland that led to his invention of a new type of traffic signal.

The first American-made automobiles were introduced to U.S. consumers shortly before the turn of the century. In the early years of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for bicycles, animal-powered wagons and new gasoline-powered motor vehicles to share the same streets and roadways with pedestrians. Accidents were frequent. After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan was convinced that something should be done to improve traffic safety.

Other inventors had developed, patented, and marketed traffic signals long before Morgan. Despite a persistent myth that Morgan invented the first traffic signal, many prototypes preceeded his patent, some going back decades earlier. For example, on August 5, 1914, the American Traffic Signal Company installed a traffic signal system on the corner of 105th Street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. Garrett A. Morgan applied for a U.S. patent for his own design for a traffic signal in 1922, and the patent was granted on November 20, 1923. Morgan later had his technology patented in England and Canada as well.

The Morgan traffic signal was a T-shaped pole unit that featured three 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.

Morgan sold the rights to his traffic signal to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000. 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, Garrett A. Morgan Boulevard and the adjacent Washington Metro's Morgan Boulevard Station are named in his honor.

National recognition

Morgan received many awards and citations. At the Emancipation Centennial Celebration in Chicago, Illinois in August, 1963, Morgan was nationally recognized.

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