Can an invention be a lifesaver? Absolutely! Read all about Garrett Morgan, the inventor of the gas mask (and a whole lot of other stuff, too!).
All About Garrett Morgan
Garrett Morgan’s inventions truly saved lives, from miners to soldiers, people driving cars, to people crossing the street.
He was largely a self-taught inventor and a mechanical genius.
What makes his accomplishments even more notable is that as a Black man in the late 1800s and early 1900s, he faced a lot of opposition and often did not receive the credit that he deserved.
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Garrett Morgan was born on March 4, 1877 in Claysville, Kentucky.
His parents were both former slaves, and he was the seventh of 11 kids.
After elementary school, he moved to Ohio as a teenager to look for work and opportunities.
He had a talent for fixing things; he worked as a handyman and then as a sewing machine repairman.
His Famous Invention
In 1907, he opened his own sewing machine and repair shop.
Although his shop thrived, Garrett never stopped tinkering.
When he heard of the deadly 1911 fire in a New York clothing factory, he worked on a device that would protect people from inhaling dangerous smoke and fumes.
He knew that smoke and dangerous gases rose in the air, so his safety hood had a long hose that drew air from the ground, where the air was safer and fresher.
He called his invention the Safety Hood and Smoke Protector.
He obtained patents for his invention in 1914.
His invention was put to the test in 1916.
Gas exploded in a tunnel under Lake Erie.
Two rescue parties tried to enter the tunnel to pull out the survivors, but they were overcome with poisonous carbon monoxide gas.
The Cleveland police department was at a loss, so they called Garrett Morgan.
They had heard of his invention.
Garrett and his brother rushed to the scene.
They put on Safety Hoods and bravely entered the tunnel, rescuing the survivors.
Garrett personally resuscitated one of the men.
The next morning the newspapers brushed over Garrett and his brother, barely mentioning them.
The Carnegie Institute instead recognized a white man as the hero of the day, even though that man played only a minor role in the rescue.
When Garrett protested, the Institute said Garrett had not shown bravery since he wore safety protection.
Nevertheless, sales of the Garrett’s Safety Hood soared.
Police and fire departments across the country raced to purchase the Safety Hoods, which we now call gas masks.
When the US entered World War I, Garrett’s gas mask was used to protect soldiers from the poisonous gas used in war.
Remembering Garrett Morgan
Garrett Morgan invented much more than the gas mask; the man never stopped thinking, tinkering and inventing.
Because of the success of his companies, he was able to purchase a car.
While at a stoplight, he witnessed a terrible crash between a car and a horse-drawn carriage.
At that time, traffic lights had only two lights: “stop” and “go.”
Morgan invented his own traffic light.
It had three lights instead of two and could be made much more cheaply.
Today all our traffic lights have three lights: red, yellow, and green.
He also invented the zigzag stitch on the sewing machine.
While experimenting with oils to prevent fast-moving sewing machine needles from scorching fabric, he discovered a product that could safely straight curly Black hair.
He launched his own line of hair care products and even invented a hair-straightening comb.
Tired of the contributions of Black citizens being overlooked by newspapers, he started his own newspaper: The Cleveland Call, now known as the Cleveland Call and Post.
Garrett Morgan died on July 27, 1963 after a long illness.
Famous Inventor Garrett Morgan
The life of this one man impacted so many others.
Although Garrett Morgan became famous for the invention of the three-signal traffic light, it was his gas mask that saved the lives of thousands during his lifetime.
It was an invention created out of his compassion and desire to help others.
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Bellis, Mary. “Biography of Garrett Morgan, Inventor of the Gas Mask.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 25 Nov. 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/garrett-morgan-profile-1992160.
Cain, Brenda. “Garrett A. Morgan, Cleveland’s ‘Black Edison,’ Created Today’s Traffic Light and Gas Mask: Black History Month’s Untold Stories.” Cleveland.com, 4 Feb. 2022, https://www.cleveland.com/entertainment/2022/02/garrett-a-morgan-clevelands-black-edison-created-todays-traffic-light-and-gas-mask-black-history-months-untold-stories.html.