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Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877, the son of former slaves. He spent his early years working on the family farm and attending the local elementary school, before moving to Cincinnati, Ohio, as a teenager to seek better opportunities. In 1895 he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he went to work as a sewing machine repair man for a local clothing manufacturer.
Although he only had the equivalent of a fifth grade education, Morgan quickly established a reputation for being very handy with almost anything mechanical, and by 1907 he had established his own small sewing machine repair shop. In addition to repairing sewing machines, Morgan also made several improvements to the basic design, which he subsequently incorporated into machines he built from scratch. In 1909 he expanded his operation to include a tailoring shop that made coats, suits and dresses on equipment he made himself; the shop also provided employment for 32 blacks who would likely have not had a job opportunity if not for Morgan.
Morgan's tailoring shop was kept quite busy, and, as a result, he was always looking for ways to improve the performance of his machines. In 1910, he noticed that the sewing machine needles often moved so fast that they generated enough heat to scorch woolen fabrics. Morgan thought that he could reduce the friction caused by the needle passing through the fabric by lubricating it and, therefore, developed a special liquid polish for the task. While testing his polish he discovered that it could also straighten hair. He then developed a method for making the polish into a cream, which he marketed under the name G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Cream, and created the G.A. Morgan Refining Company to market it and other personal grooming products he invented.
Although Morgan enjoyed financial success with his sewing machine repair business, tailoring shop and grooming products, he wanted to use his inventive talents on something that would benefit people directly. Fire was a constant threat in cities of his day, and Morgan saw a need for a device that would enable firefighters to enter smoky buildings to rescue trapped victims. In 1914, he patented the Safety Hood, which consisted of a hood worn over the fireman's head, from which emanated a tube that extended almost to the ground, allowing the fireman to breathe in clean air (since smoke rises, leaving relatively smoke-free air at ground level). A sponge-like material at the bottom helped filter the incoming air, and a second tube allowed the user to exhale air out of the mask. After receiving his patent, he formed The National Safety Device Company to manufacture and sell the device. Although he often drew enthusiastic responses when he demonstrated his mask, many potential buyers refused to buy the device after learning its inventor was black.
The first true test of Morgan's mask came on the night of July 25, 1916, when a 32-man crew drilling a water tunnel under Lake Erie hit a pocket of natural gas. The resulting explosion trapped the men underground, and the first potential rescuers who went in after them were overcome by smoke and dust. Someone in the rescue squad remembered seeing Morgan demonstrating his device and suggested that he be called to the scene. Morgan and his brother Frank answered the call and showed up at the disaster scene with four masks, and they, along with two other men, were able to save several of the trapped workers and recover four bodies before officials closed the tunnel to further rescue attempts. News of Morgan's achievement made him a hero, and soon fire departments across the country were placing orders for his Safety Mask. He was also awarded a gold medal by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and his mask won a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety. The accolades and awards notwithstanding, however, many of the fire departments that ordered Morgan Safety Masks subsequently cancelled their contracts upon learning that the inventor was black. Although he never enjoyed financial success with his Safety Mask, he was able to take pride in the fact that the U.S. Army used the basics of his design to develop the Gas Masks it used during World War I.
Although Morgan had difficulty selling his Safety Masks, he did not stop trying to make life a little safer. After witnessing an accident between an automobile and a horse and carriage, he determined that existing mechanical stop-and-go traffic signals were dangerous because they did not have a caution signal to slow traffic. In response, he invented a three-armed signal that indicated stop and go in two directions, had a four-way stop for pedestrians, and also included a signal for moving forward with caution (the forerunner of today's yellow light). He was granted a patent for the device on November 20, 1923, and soon after sold it to General Electric for $40,000.
patent drawing for Morgan's traffic light
The traffic signal would be Morgan's last major invention, but he remained active throughout most of the rest of his life. He founded a black newspaper in Cleveland, was an active member in various civic organizations, and was a popular speaker at technology and invention conventions. He died in Cleveland on August 27, 1963, and is buried in that city's Lakeview Cemetery.
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This page was last updated on October 13, 2018.