Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in Paris Kentucky to former slaves. His ingenuity was responsible for two life-saving inventions and his sense of justice inspired a lifetime of community activism which improved the lives of African-Americans in Cleveland. His list of accomplishments would be remarkable for anyone at any time in history. For a black man with a sixth-grade education in the early part of the 20th century he was nothing short of astonishing.
Morgan came to Cleveland in 1895 and found work as a sewing machine repairman. By 1907 he had established his own sewing machine business, which was the first of his many businesses. By 1909 the sewing machine business had expanded into a tailoring shop which employed 32 people and used equipment he himself had built. Four years after that he established the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Co. and began selling a hair-straightening product he had discovered by accident.
Morgan joined with a group of black businessmen in 1908 to form the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, which organized lectures, social events, charitable projects and weeky public meetings in an effort to improve economic and social conditions for blacks. He served as treasurer of this organization until it merged with the NAACP. After the merger he remained a lifetime member of the NAACP.
In 1920, Morgan established a weekly newspaper named the Cleveland Call, which was a predecessor of the Call and Post, Cleveland's major African-American newspaper.
In 1923, Morgan used the proceeds of the sale of his patent on the traffic signal to purchase 121 acres near Wakeman, Ohio. He there established the all-black Wakeman Country Club, and the Wakeman Heights housing development.
INVENTOR & HERO
Morgan invented a safety helmet to protect the wearer from smoke and ammonia, introducing his "Breathing Device" in 1912, patenting it in 1914. The same year, Morgan established the National Safety Device Co. to manufacture and sell the new device. He demonstrated the product across the United States and Canada, and won several medals for it.
The real test, though, came on July 25, 1916, when there was an explosion in a tunnel being dug under Lake Erie. 32 workers were trapped underground in the dust, smoke, and poisonous gases. No means of rescuing them was known, and they were feared lost. Morgan and his brother, hearing of the disaster, quickly descended into the tunnel wearing their Safety Hoods and rescued several of the workers. News of the dramatic rescue spread quickly, and newspapers across the country picked up the story. Morgan's Safety Hood, now known as the "Gas Mask", was used by the United States government to save the lives of thousands of soldiers exposed to poisonous gases during World War I.
Morgan was recognized throughout his life for developing, manufacturing and patenting many other inventions, including a zig-zag stitching attachment for sewing machines. But the most famous of these was his "Three-Way Automatic Traffic Signal", which he patented in 1923. General Electric bought that patent for $40,000, and soon Morgan's traffic signal was used throughout North America.
Morgan was frequently invited to demonstrate his life-saving inventions across the United States, and he was honored by many of the most powerful and influential men of his day, including J.P Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. His own influence continues to this day.