Everybody knows Kentucky is famous for Thoroughbreds, bourbon and frenzied college basketball. But did you know that were it not for a Kentuckian, traffic lights as we know them might not exist?
Born in Paris, Kentucky, in 1877, Garrett Augustus Morgan was the country’s most accomplished African-American inventor. Throughout his life, Morgan held numerous patents on interesting creations, but he became famous for conceiving both the traffic light and the gas mask. While his inventions would enter history books as lifesaving innovations, Morgan’s legacy eventually would come to include much, much more.
Garrett Morgan was one of 11 children born to Eliza Reed, a mixed-race daughter of a Baptist minister, and Sydney, a former slave. Garrett had only an elementary school education, but what he lacked in schooling, he made up for in ingenuity. When he was a teenager, he moved to Cincinnati in search of work. He became a handyman, and then, after moving to Cleveland, found a job in a sewing machine factory, where he discovered his proficiency for fixing mechanical things. He eventually developed a new and improved sewing machine and, in 1907, opened his own repair business.
Morgan married Mary Anne Hassek, a seamstress, and together they ran a prominent tailoring shop, selling dresses, suits and coats. It was there that Morgan, pretty much by accident, made a discovery that would lead him to a life as an inventor.
In an effort to prevent fabrics from being scorched, as often happened with sewing-machine needles moving at such high speeds, Morgan began testing chemical solutions that would polish the needle and protect the material. His experiment helped alleviate friction on the cloth, and another result was that the threads of the fabric became straighter. This led to the development of a tonic that would relax hair and the subsequent formation of the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company, which marketed and sold the hair cream and other grooming products to African-American consumers.
The company and the products were such a success that Morgan became a wealthy man, which allowed him to turn his focus to other groundbreaking ideas. In 1912, he invented a safety hood that he called a breathing device, which let the wearer inhale clean air in the presence of smoke or other noxious fumes. It was this invention that was the forerunner of the gas masks that saved the lives of many soldiers during World War I.
However, Morgan faced a struggle while marketing the safety hood, encountering buyers unwilling to use a product created by an African American. Fortunately, he was as talented a salesperson as he was an inventor. Morgan hired a white actor to portray him in a series of demonstrations while he posed as a trusty sidekick displaying the device. Suddenly, the safety hood was doing brisk business among firefighters and rescue workers.
Two years later, the safety hood not only would prove its worth, but it also would prove Morgan’s mettle and transform him from profound inventor to public hero. In 1916, a crew drilling a tunnel under Lake Erie hit a pocket of natural gas. A spark set off a huge explosion that trapped workers underground amidst terrible fumes. Rushing to the scene with safety hoods, Morgan and his brother, Frank, were able to save several men before efforts were halted. According to historical reports, while the dramatic rescue made national headlines, Cleveland newspapers and local officials initially ignored the Morgan brothers’ heroism, a reaction presumed to be racially motivated.
Consequently, throughout his life Morgan worked to fight racial injustices, becoming a strong advocate—not to mention inspiration—for the African-American community. He was one of the founders of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, a group that later merged with the NAACP, and he even launched one of the first African-American newspapers, the Cleveland Call.
The events of Lake Erie behind him, Morgan moved on to other much-needed inventions—and to saving other lives. At the turn of the century, horse-drawn carriages were sharing busy streets with newfangled automobiles, and one day, Morgan witnessed an accident at a city intersection. He quickly went to work to develop a device that would alert drivers of the need to stop. In 1923, Morgan patented a version of the three-position traffic light that is used today. He sold the patent to General Electric for $40,000, but it later would come to be known as his most renowned invention.
Just before his death in 1963 at the age of 86, the U.S. government honored Morgan with a citation for his contribution and maybe, also, for making the world a safer place.