Garrett Augustus Morgan

 The great african-american Inventor

by Aravindan Sridharan

Aravindan Sridharan is a PhD candidate at Polytechnique School of Montreal in Solar Energy. 

Aravindan Sridharan is a PhD candidate at Polytechnique School of Montreal in Solar Energy. 

This is the story of a very special boy who grew up to be one of the greatest yet inconspicuous inventors of all time.
Without him, we wouldn’t have traffic signals, gas masks, sewing machines, hair care products, and so many more!

In 1877, Garrett was born in an african-american community to Sydney, a former slave, and Elizabeth Morgan, a woman of native american and african descent, in the outskirts of Paris, small-town Kentucky.

As a young boy, Garrett worked on his family farm and attended school like any other boy his age. Unfortunately, at the tender age of 14, he had to leave his school and family to make money. He moved to Cincinnati and embarked on his first stint as an apprentice for a Handyman. This job allowed young Garrett to fund a private tutor for his studies.

Later on, at the age of 18, Garrett moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and started working for the Roots and McBride clothing firm as a sewing machine technician. This job leading to his first invention: a belt fastener for sewing machines! Over the years, with this invention, Garrett would make enough money to start his sewing machine repair shop in 1907. He would be so successful in his business that he would expand subsequently as a clothing retailer using his inventions. On one occasion, he noticed wool getting burnt by the needle. His attempt to find a chemical solution to the problem ended up resulting in a new hair straightening cream for a product.

Garrett, however, was not the kind of person who was satisfied with attaining success at a personal level. He wanted to make a difference, and be the change he wanted to see in the world. He would always observe simple things in life that would need engineering solutions and try to do his small part in solving the issue.  For example, he got the idea of making a safety hood after watching firefighters and tunnel workers struggle in toxic environments. He filed a patent in 1912 and founded a company in 1914 to manufacture and sell his invention nationwide.

In 1916, Garrett and his brother rescued trapped workers in a collapsed tunnel. They rescued two people and recovered four bodies using the new design. However, this operation damaged Garrett’s business as people would not buy his products after coming to know of the inventor’s race. This discrimination meant no recognition for their efforts and the awards for the rescue were given to others less deserving. His mask was later used as a prototype to build those used in World War II later on. The impartiality in news coverage later prompted to start his newspaper called the Cleveland call in 1920.

Morgan on a different occasion noticed that the streets of Cleveland were messy and prone to accidents due to the intermingling of buggies, cars, and pedestrian users. Out of concern for his fellow citizens, he devised a traffic signal prototype. The plans for the traffic signal showed a very different model from what we currently see on our streets. His traffic signal had two arms that would go up and down to indicate the right of passage.

Morgan’s signal was not the first invention of its kind. Nevertheless, he brought out the concept of a third sign other than “Go” and “Stop”. This third “all-stop” sign would stop traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to pass through.

To conclude, Garrett Morgan was a great scientist, inventor, and humanitarian who worked not only for the advancement for black Americans but the entire mankind.  His work saved many lives and continued to be the basis of modern advancements.