Garrett Morgan (1877 – 1963)

Of Gas Masks and Traffic Lights

Garrett Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, in 1877, to former slaves. Leaving school at 14 after having received a 6th grade education, he moved to Ohio, and worked as a handyman a sewing machine repairman and salesman. In his spare time, he tinkered with inventions in his workshop.

All of his tinkering and working with machines led him to open his own repair shop in 1907 and soon thereafter a retail clothing store with his wife in 1909 and eventually employed 32 people.  Although a lifelong businessman, with businesses ranging from clothing to haircare products to newspapers and a variety of safety devices.

It was in safety that Morgan made his greatest impact. The first was with the invention of the gas mask, which he called the “Smoke Hood” and for which he received a patent in 1914 and created the National Safety Device Company to market it.  The mask was made of rubber and had a filter that could remove harmful gases from the air while others had hoses that dragged on the floor so that the user could breathe clean air as the poisonous or smoke filled air rose.  This is the version that Garrett and his brother donned in 1916 in order to rescue miners trapped in a water intake tunnel 50 ft (15 m) beneath Lake Erie that was filling with noxious gasses. He was nominated for (but did not win) the Carnegie Medal for his efforts. 

A decade later, after witnessing a terrible accident at an intersection Morgan invented the first modern automatic three position traffic signal, receiving a patent in 1923. Previous versions of signals featured Stop and Go, which didn’t give drivers much of an opportunity to react, resulting in many accidents.  His introduction of yellow and the signals automation helped to bring order to an element of life that was rapidly growing chaotic as the number of carts skyrocketed in the early part of the 20th century. Founding a company to manufacture his lights, he eventually sold his American, Canadian and UK patents to General Electric for $40,000.

Garrett was an important voice in America’s black community, in 1908 co-founding the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, which later merged with the NAACP.  In 1920 he founded the Cleveland Call which became on the of the nation’s premier newspapers for black Americans.  Later he established the Wakeman Country Club, a club and community open to blacks, which, at the time, most in the nation were not.

Although he only had a 6th grade education, Garrett Morgan never stopped learning, first by hiring a tutor when he moved to Ohio then throughout the rest of his life by reading and hands on experimentation.  He would likely be happy to know that a century after his invention reactions to red, yellow and green are almost second nature to most Americans while sitting behind the wheels of their cars. A great legacy for someone who had to leave school at 14.