Know Ohio: Garrett Morgan

WE OHIOANS ARE AN INVENTIVE BUNCH. FROM THE WRIGHT BROTHERS TAKING US SKYWARD, TO MILAN-BORN THOMAS EDISON GIVING US LIGHT – OHIO’S INVENTORS CONTINUE TO IMPACT OUR LIVES.

BUT THE INVENTOR I’M GOING TO TELL YOU ABOUT TODAY IS IMPRESSIVE, NOT ONLY BECAUSE HE ENGINEERED INNOVATIVE AND LIFE-SAVING DEVICES THAT WE STILL USE TODAY, BUT BECAUSE HE DID IT ALL WHILE FIGHTING RACISM AND PREJUDICE.

HIS NAME WAS GARRETT AUGUSTUS MORGAN, AND HE WAS BORN TO FORMER SLAVES IN KENTUCKY IN 1877, BUT HE MOVED TO OHIO AS A YOUNG MAN. ALTHOUGH HE ONLY HAD A 6TH GRADE EDUCATION, MORGAN WAS A MECHANICAL GENIUS – AND, AFTER A SHORT TIME WORKING AT A TEXTILE FACTORY – HE WAS ABLE TO LEARN HOW ALL THE MACHINES WORKED. HE WAS PROMOTED TO MECHANIC AT THE FACTORY, BUT HE SOON BECAME AN ENTREPRENEUR – OPENING A SEWING MACHINE REPAIR SHOP, THEN A CLOTHING BUSINESS.

IT WAS THE EARLY 1900’S, A PERIOD OF GREAT DIFFICULTY FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS, BUT, THROUGH HIS BUSINESSES, MORGAN BECAME INCREDIBLY SUCCESSFUL – IN FACT, IN THE 1920’S, HE BECAME THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN IN CLEVELAND TO OWN A CAR. IT WAS A GREAT LUXURY AT THE TIME, BUT DRIVING WAS VERY DANGEROUS BECAUSE THERE WERE A LOT OF CARS ON THE ROAD AND NOT ENOUGH WAYS TO CONTROL THEM. AFTER WITNESSING A CRASH, GARRETT MORGAN DEVELOPED THE CONCEPT OF THE TRAFFIC SIGNAL. HE LATER SOLD HIS T-SHAPED DESIGN TO GENERAL ELECTRIC FOR $40,000.

MORGAN ALSO INVENTED HAIR PRODUCTS FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS AND, IN 1916, A PRECURSOR TO THE GAS MASK – WHICH HE CALLED A SAFETY HOOD. HIS DESIGN ALLOWED PEOPLE TO BREATHE WITHIN TOXIC ENVIRONMENTS, BUT, DUE TO RACISM, MANY BUYERS DIDN’T TRUST MORGAN’S DEVICE. WHEN WORKERS DRILLING A WATER INTAKE TUNNEL UNDER LAKE ERIE HIT A PATCH OF TOXIC GAS, MORGAN DONNED THE SAFETY MASK HIMSELF TO VENTURE INTO THE TUNNEL TO RESCUE THE MINERS.

BECAUSE OF HIS RACE, MORGAN WAS NOT WIDELY ACKNOWLEDGED AS A HERO FOR HIS VALIANT EFFORTS THAT DAY, BUT YEARS LATER, HE GOT HIS DUE. THE WATER TREATMENT PLANT WHICH SITS ATOP THE TUNNEL WAS RENAMED THE GARRETT A. MORGAN WATER TREATMENT PLANT 25 YEARS AGO.

FIRE DEPARTMENTS AND MINE OWNERS ACROSS THE COUNTRY ORDERED HIS DESIGN AND IT HELPED TO SAVE COUNTLESS LIVES.

GARRETT MORGAN’S INVENTIONS CERTAINLY MADE THE WORLD SAFER – BUT HIS RESILIENCE AGAINST PREJUDICE MADE THIS COUNTRY MORE EQUAL.


Instructional Links


Reference Book: Encyclopedia of Cleveland, Garrett Morgan

Radio Program: University of Houston, Engines of Our Ingenuity, Garrett Morgan | Includes biographical article, illustrations and audio file.

Website Article: PBS.org, They Made America, Garrett Augustus Morgan

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