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As the son of parents who gained their freedom, Garret A. Morgan is known today for inventing the modern traffic light, but nearly 60 years after his death, the full scope of his contributions to society are rarely discussed.
An inventor, entrepreneur and publisher, Morgan received patents for a three-position traffic signal, a safety hood (gas mask), and a hair-straightening solution he discovered by accident. The self-made genius also became a newspaper publisher, all while fighting for the recognition he would never fully receive, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
Born in either 1877 or 1879 in Paris, Kentucky to Sydney and Eliza Reed, Morgan left school as a young teenager and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. There he worked as a sewing-machine adjuster while receiving tutoring in his spare time. Not content with simply working for others, Morgan molded an entrepreneurial spirit. He soon went into business for himself, establishing a shop selling sewing machines in 1907.
Each year he gained more ventures under his wing, and by 1913, he built a tailoring shop and established the Morgan Hair Refining Company to market his straightening solution. While exploring a way to reduce friction between sewing machines and woolen fabric, he soon realized a chemical he developed to straighten the woolen fabric could also work on hair.
Traffic light and safety hood make Garret A. Morgan an essential Black inventor
It was Morgan’s two later inventions that catapulted him to being among the most essential inventors for modern-day public safety.
In 1914, Garret A. Morgan patented a safety helmet or gas mask that could help the wearer breathe under extreme smoke-related conditions. Despite creating a device essential for fire fighters seeking to save lives, fire departments in the South refused to purchase his device. According to PBS, Morgan tricked his buyers by hiring an actor to pose as the inventor while he would dress in a suit and go inside a smoke-filled tent for 10 minutes to demonstrate the device’s effectiveness.
Rising above the hate, Morgan famously proved the power of his device after a Waterworks explosion in 1916. At the request of Cleveland police, he used his gas mask invention to descend into a gas-filled tunnel beneath Lake Erie, saving workers and retrieving dead bodies.
A legacy that lives on
Already a hero, Morgan went on to invent a crucial upgrade to the under-developed, prior traffic light. He included a third cautionary signal, saving untold numbers of lives to this day. Before Morgan’s invention, traffic lights only showed stop and go signals.
While his invention remains crucial to society’s functioning today, he only received $40,000 when he sold it to General Electric Co. in 1923.
Capping his legacy with the founding of the Cleveland Call weekly newspaper in 1920, he also helped establish the the Cleveland Association of Colored Men.
A member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Morgan passed away on July 27, 1963 in Cleveland, with some suspecting exposure to chemicals during his gas masks tests.
He was survived by his wife Mary Hasek and three children, John P., Garrett A., Jr., and Cosmo H. Morgan.