Garrett Morgan

Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. (March 4, 1877 – July 27, 1963) was an African American inventor and businessman as well as an influential political leader. His most notable inventions were the three position traffic signal and smoke hood. Morgan also discovered and developed a chemical hair-processing and straightening solution. He created a successful company based on his hair product inventions along with a complete line of hair-care products.

Garrett Morgan
Garrett Augustus Morgan

(1877-03-04)March 4, 1877
DiedJuly 27, 1963(1963-07-27) (aged 86)
Cleveland, Ohio, United States[1]
Other namesBig Chief Mason
  • Inventor
  • entrepreneur
Known forInventing a type of smoke hood

Early life

Morgan was born in 1877 at Claysville, Harrison County, Kentucky,[1] an almost exclusively African American community outside of Paris, Kentucky.[2] His father was Sydney Morgan, a son and freed chattel slave of Confederate Colonel John H. Morgan of the infamous Morgan's Raiders.[1] His mother was a slave called Elizabeth Reed, who was the result of a union between a White minister named Rev. Garrett Reed. [3] Being part Native American[4] , and grandson of Rev. Garrett Reed[1] he had at least one sibling, a brother named Frank, who assisted in the 1916 Lake Erie tunnel rescue.[1] Possessing a sixth-grade education, from Branch Elementary School in Claysville, Morgan moved at the age of 14 to Cincinnati, Ohio, in search of employment.[1][5]


Most of his teenage years were spent working as a handyman for a Cincinnati landowner. Like many American children growing up in the turn of the century, Morgan had to quit school at a young age in order to work full-time. Morgan was able to hire a tutor and continue his studies while working in Cincinnati. In 1895, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio,[1] where he began repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. This experience with repairing sewing machine was the impetus for Morgan's interest in how things worked. His first invention, developed during this period, was a belt fastener for sewing machines.[6] Throughout this period of time, before his first patent in 1912, he was slowly building his reputation in Cleveland for his skill at fixing things.

In 1907, Morgan with nearly a decade of experience with sewing machines, finally opened up his own sewing machine. In 1908, Morgan became more conscious of his heritage and helped found the Cleveland Association of Colored Men.[3][7] In 1909, he and his wife Mary Anne expanded their business ventures by opening a shop called Morgan's Cut Rate Ladies Clothing Store.[8] The shop had 32 employees, and made coats, suits, dresses, and other clothing.[3] Around 1910 his interest in repairing other people's inventions waned, and he became interested in developing some of his own.

He was the subject of a newspaper feature in Cleveland Ohio, Ohio, for a heroic rescue in 1916 of workers trapped within a water intake tunnel, 50 ft (15 m) beneath Lake Erie. He performed his rescue using a hood fashioned to protect his eyes from smoke and featuring a series of air tubes that hung near the ground to draw clean air beneath the rising smoke. This enabled Morgan to lengthen his ability to endure the inhospitable conditions of a smoke-filled room. Morgan is also credited as the first African American in Cleveland to own an automobile.

The smoke hood was completed circa 1912. He received his patent for it that year as well. The successful invention of the smoke hood precipitated the launch of the National Safety Device Company in 1914. It is unknown if the smoke hood brought him any commercial success. No sales figures have been found but his use of guerrilla marketing, going to different venues and demonstrating his smoke hood by strapping it on and entering a smoke filled tee pee, certainly demonstrated his faith in his own invention. In 1913 he incorporated hair care products into his growing list of patents and launched the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company, which sold hair care products, including his patented hair straightening cream, a hair coloring, and a hair straightening comb invented by Morgan.

Later in life he developed glaucoma[1] and by 1943 was functionally blind. He had poor health the rest of his life,[9][10] but continued to work on his inventions. One of his last was a self-extinguishing cigarette, which used a small plastic pellet filled with water placed just before the filter. He died on July 27, 1963[3][10][11] age 86 and is buried at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.[3]

Products and inventions

Hair care products

Morgan experimented with a liquid that gave sewing machine needles a high polish that prevented the needle from scorching fabric as it sewed. In 1905, Morgan accidentally discovered that the liquid could also straighten hair.[3] He made the liquid into a cream and launched the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company to market it. He also made a black hair oil dye and invented a curved-tooth comb for hair straightening in 1910.[8]

Smoke hood

Garrett Morgan invented a safety hood smoke protection device after seeing firefighters struggling from the smoke they encountered in the line of duty.[4] His device used a wet sponge to filter out smoke and cool the air.[12] It also took advantage of the way smoke and fumes tend to rise to higher positions while leaving a layer of more breathable air below, by using an air intake tube that dangled near the floor.[9] The safety hood used a series of tubes to draw clean air off the lowest level the tubes could extend to. Smoke, being hotter than the air around it, rises, and by drawing air from the ground, the Safety Hood provided the user with a way to perform emergency respiration. He filed for a patent on the device in 1912,[9][13] and founded a company called the National Safety Device Company in 1914 to market it. He was able to sell his invention around the country, sometimes using the tactic of having a hired white actor take credit rather than revealing himself as its inventor.[4] For demonstrations of the device, he sometimes adopted the disguise of "Big Chief Mason", a purported full-blooded Indian from the Walpole Island Indian Reserve in Canada.[14] He would demonstrate the device by building a noxious fire fueled by tar, sulfur, formaldehyde and manure inside an enclosed tent.[9] Disguised as Big Chief Mason, he would enter the tent full of black smoke, and would remain there for 20 minutes before emerging unharmed.[9]

His safety hood device was simple and effective, whereas the other devices in use at the time were generally difficult to put on, excessively complex, unreliable, or ineffective.[9] It was patented[15] and awarded a gold medal two years later by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.[16] Morgan's safety hood was used to save many lives during the period of its use.[9] By World War I, his breathing device was refined to carry its own air supply, making it a gas mask. However, upon their entry into the First World War, the United States Army adopted the British Small Box Respirator and French M2 Respirator as their standard anti-gas equipment, the former invented by Newfoundlander Cluny MacPherson.

He also developed later models that incorporated an air bag that could hold about 15 minutes of fresh air.[9][10]

His invention became known nationally when he led a rescue that saved several men's lives after a July 24, 1916 tunnel explosion under Lake Erie.[9][12][17] Before Morgan arrived, two previous rescue attempts had failed. The attempted rescuers had become victims themselves by entering the tunnel and not returning. Morgan was roused in the middle of the night after one of the members of the rescue team who had seen a demonstration of his device sent a messenger to convince him to come and to bring as many of his hoods as he could.[9] He arrived on the scene still wearing his pajamas, and brought his brother Frank and four of the hoods with him.[9][10][12] Most of the rescuers on the scene were initially skeptical of his device, so he and his brother went into the tunnel along with two other volunteers, and succeeded in pulling out two men from the previous rescue attempts.[9][12] He emerged carrying a victim on his back, and his brother followed just behind with another.[10] Others joined in after his team succeeded, and rescued several more.[9] His device was also used to retrieve the bodies of the rescuers that did not survive. Morgan personally made four trips into the tunnel during the rescue, and his health was affected for years afterward from the fumes he encountered there.[9] Cleveland's newspapers and city officials initially ignored Morgan's act of heroism as the first to rush into the tunnel for the rescue and his key role as the provider of the equipment that made the rescue possible, and it took years for the city to recognize his contributions.[4][9] City officials requested the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission to issue medals to several of the men involved in the rescue, but excluded Morgan from their request.[9] He believed that the omission was racially motivated.[9] Later, in 1917, a group of citizens of Cleveland tried to correct for the omission by presenting him with a diamond-studded gold medal.[9] After the heroic rescue Morgan's company received order requests from fire departments all over the country.[16]

He was also given a medal from the International Association of Fire Engineers, which made him an honorary member.[10]

Morgan's invention of the safety hood was featured on the television show Inventions that Shook the World[18] and Mysteries at the Museum (S08E05).

Traffic signal

The first American-made automobiles were introduced to consumers just before the turn of the twentieth century, and pedestrians, bicycles, animal-drawn wagons and motor vehicles all had to share the same roads. To deal with the growing problem of traffic accidents, a number of versions of traffic signaling devices began to be developed, starting around 1913.

Morgan had witnessed a serious accident at an intersection, and he filed a patent for traffic control device having a third "warning" position in 1922. The patent was granted in 1923,[19] though this was not the first system with a warning, a three light system being invented in 1920 by William Potts, and previous systems having audible warnings.

Community leadership

In 1908, he co-founded the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, a group with the mission of improving economic and social conditions within the African American community (this group would later merged with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)).[3][7][10] Morgan served as its treasurer.[10] He was a member of the NAACP and donated money to Historically Black Colleges and Universities colleges.[4]

Morgan, in 1920, founded the Cleveland Call, a weekly newspaper and, in 1938, subsequently participated in its merger that created the Cleveland Call and Post newspaper.[20] Due to Jim Crow laws widely passing in southern states during the 1870s in response to the slavery being outlawed by the 13th and 14th amendments of the U.S. constitution, de jour racial discrimination and segregation remained in effect -legally banning African Americans and the Black Community from accessing public or private areas used by whites in much of the United States under the pain of death. As a response to the environment created by Jim Crow, Morgan purchased a farm near Wakeman, Ohio, and upon that land build the Black Wakeman Country Club which serviced all men, including African Americans and members of the Black Community.

Morgan was a member of the Prince Hall Freemason fraternal organization, a Freemason group that predominantly consisted of African Americans due to de jour segregation (Excelsior Lodge No. 11 of Cleveland, Ohio).[21] He was also a faithful member of Antioch Baptist Church.[1]

In 1931, motivated by the reality that the city was neither properly addressing the needs of its African American citizens, nor the undue hardship endured by the whole of the Black community, he ran for a seat on the Cleveland City Council as an independent candidate, but was not elected.[6][9]

Personal life

Morgan married Madge Nelson in 1896; they were divorced in 1898. In 1908 he married Mary Hasek. He had three children: John P. Morgan, Garrett A. Morgan, Jr., and Cosmo H. Morgan.

He died in Cleveland, Ohio, and was laid to rest in the Lake View Cemetery.

Awards and recognitions

At the Emancipation Centennial Celebration in Chicago, Illinois, in August 1963 (one month after his death), Morgan was nationally recognized.[1]

In the Cleveland, Ohio area, the Garrett A. Morgan Cleveland School of Science and the Garrett A. Morgan Water Treatment Plant have been named in his honor. An elementary school in Chicago was also named after him.[22] An elementary school bearing his name opened in the fall of 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.[23] In Prince George's County, Maryland, there is a street named Garrett A. Morgan Boulevard (formerly Summerfield Boulevard until 2002) and the adjacent Metro stop (Morgan Boulevard) also bears his name.

Morgan was included in the 2002 book 100 Greatest African Americans by Molefi Kete Asante.[24]

Morgan is an honorary member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.[1][25]


Garrett Morgan is featured in Bayer Mack's 2019 documentary, No Lye: An American Beauty Story, that chronicles the rise and decline of the black-owned ethnic beauty industry.[26]


  1. "Claysville and Other Neighborhoods (Paris, KY)". Notable Kentucky African Americans Database. University of Kentucky. Retrieved May 27, 2015.
  2. "Morgan, Garrett A." The Encyclopedia of Cleveland. A joint effort by Case Western University and the Western Reserve Historical Society. February 23, 2005. Retrieved February 11, 2013.
  3. Who Made America? Pioneers: Garrett Augustus Morgan
  4. "Morgan, Garrett A., Sr. · Notable Kentucky African Americans Database". Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  5. Bianco, David (1992). "Morgan, Garrett 1877-1963". Retrieved May 27, 2015.
  6. Cleveland Association of Colored Men, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University.
  7. Garrett Morgan, Cleveland Inventor,
  8. Sisson, Mary (2008). "Garrett Morgan". In Cavendish, Marshall (ed.). Inventors and Inventions. Volume 4. pp. 1101–1107. ISBN 978-0-7614-7767-9. Retrieved October 1, 2013. Later designs would include an air bag containing about 15 minutes' worth of fresh air.
  9. Garrett Morgan, Black Inventor Museum.
  10. "Garrett A. Morgan". Engineering and Technology History Wiki. Retrieved May 27, 2015.
  11. Inventor of the Week: Garrett A. Morgan: The Safety Hood, MIT, February 1997. Archived April 15, 2004, at the Wayback Machine
  12. Morgan, Garrett A. (March 24, 1914), Breathing device., retrieved May 23, 2016
  13. Time-Life Editors (1991). Inventive Genius. New York: Time-Life Books. p. 40. ISBN 0-8094-7699-1.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  14. Morgan, Garrett A. (October 13, 1914), Breathing device., retrieved May 23, 2016
  15. "Garrett Morgan 1877-1963". Famous Inventors. Two years later, a refined model of his early gas mask won a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety, and another gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
  16. "22 Men Killed Under Lake Fire" (On-Line Google News Archive). Lawrence Journal-World. Vol. LX. Lawrence, Kansas. July 25, 1916. p. 1. Retrieved October 1, 2013. Note: This source for the tunnel fire makes no mention of Morgan by name, save "The second [rescue expedition] saved one of first rescue expedition"
  17. "Inventions that Shook the World: The 1910s". Discovery Channel. Retrieved March 16, 2013.
  18. A, Morgan Garrett (November 20, 1923), Traffic signal, retrieved May 23, 2016
  19. "The Cleveland Call & Post". The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Case Western Reserve University. Retrieved January 28, 2015.
  20. Gray, David (2012). The History of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Ohio F&AM 1971–2011: The Fabric of Freemasonry. Columbus, Ohio: Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Ohio. p. 157. ISBN 978-0615632957.
  21. "Chicago Names School for Inventor Garrett A. Morgan". Jet. May 31, 1973. Retrieved May 27, 2015.
  22. Garrett Morgan Elementary website.
  23. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002), 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  24. "Prominent Members of Alpha". Alpha Phi Alpha. Archived from the original on October 5, 2013. Retrieved May 27, 2015.
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