Facts About Garrett Morgan

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African American/Black Innovations ... where would we be without them?

1. Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky, USA, in 1877. He was the seventh child in a family of eleven. His mother was of mixed African-American and Native American descent, and there was some uncertainty regarding his father’s identity. He worked on the family farm while attending elementary school, and left home when he was about 14, to earn his living.

2. He did odd jobs in Cincinnati, Ohio, and paid for private lessons to further his education. He started working as a sewing machine mechanic, and gained a reputation for repairing sewing machines. He got a patent for an improved sewing machine in 1907. He established himself in Cleveland and opened his own shop, selling and repairing sewing machines. In 1908, he married a Bavarian woman named Mary Anne Hassek.

3. His wife was a seamstress, and they started a tailoring shop in 1909. Morgan was trying to solve a problem which frequently occurred then. Sewing machine needles would scorch wool, because of their high running speed. He created a chemical solution to reduce friction, and noticed that the fibres on the cloth became straighter. He then tried the solution on a wiry-haired dog, and then on his own hair. This led to the formation of the GA Morgan Hair Refining Company, which successfully sold its product mainly to African-Americans, and provided financial stability to Morgan.

4. Assured of a regular income, Morgan turned his inventive mind to other projects. He invented a friction drive clutch and fasteners for hats and belts. He worked on a breathing device which could be used by fire fighters, and obtained a patent in 1914. He proceeded to demonstrate its use personally, and it was awarded first prize at the Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in New York City. He had to use unconventional methods to sell this product in the Deep South, where racial prejudice was still rampant. He would hire a white actor, who purported to be the inventor, and dressed as a Red Indian Chief, he would go into a tent filled with noxious fumes and smoke. This tactic worked well, as long as his real identity was undisclosed, and the breathing device sold well.

In 1916, work was going on in a tunnel under Lake Eerie, when an explosion took place. Rescue attempts proved futile, and Morgan was called upon. He and his brother arrived with the breathing devices, and went into the tunnel themselves. When they re-appeared carrying workers on their backs, other volunteers joined the rescue mission. Lives were saved and the bodies of those who perished were also brought back. Despite this heroism, the city officials did not acknowledge Morgan. In fact, the sales of his product in the South declined, because now people knew that he was African American. Some prominent citizens of Cleveland tried to rectify the situation by presenting him with a diamond-studded gold medal for bravery.

6. One day, Morgan witnessed a collision between a horse carriage and an automobile at a traffic intersection. He was motivated to develop a signal which warned drivers when to stop. He acquired patents in USA, Canada and Britain. This device was the precursor of the traffic lights in use today. Morgan sold the patent to General Electric for $ 40,000.

7. In 1916, Morgan helped to found a newspaper, Cleveland Call, which later became The Cleveland Call and Post. In 1920, he opened a country club only for blacks called Wakeman Country Club. He also unsuccessfully ran as an independent candidate for the Cleveland City Council in 1931.

8. Though he devoted so much time to his inventions, he did not neglect his community. He supported educational institutions for blacks, helped to start the Cleveland Association for Coloured Men, and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

9. In 1943, Morgan became almost blind due to glaucoma. He remained active till the end of his life. He died in 1963.

Garrett Morgan was honoured by the government for his invention of the traffic signal. He received a medal from the International Association of Fire Engineers for his breathing device, and he was finally recognised as the hero of the Eerie Tunnel explosion. He will always be remembered for his life-saving inventions. The Garrett A. Morgan Cleveland School of Science is a testimony to his genius.

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