It was around 3.00 am on July 25, 1916, when African-American inventor, Garrett Augustus Morgan, grabbed attention when he used one of his inventions, the gas mask, to rescue City of Cleveland workers trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel located 250 feet beneath Lake Erie.
On the night of the explosion, a rescue party was organized to reach out to the trapped workers, but they were not successful as some of the would-be rescuers would even pass out due to gas fumes.
After these unsuccessful rescue attempts, authorities contacted Morgan in the middle of the night – six hours after the incident – and asked him to bring along his gas mask to rescue the workers. Morgan and a team of volunteers, including his brother, arrived at the scene wearing their gas masks and soon they were able to rescue more than 20 people, including bodies of those who had died in the explosion.
Due to his courageous efforts that saved the lives of many people, Morgan received many additional requests from fire departments around the country which expressed interest in purchasing the masks that were invented two years prior.
Morgan had invented the device called the Morgan Safety Hood and Smoke Protector in 1914, an invention that was later dubbed the gas mask. Despite the many requests he had after the tunnel explosion, Morgan’s role in the accident was later downplayed by authorities.
A white man who played a minor role in the rescue effort was given the prestigious “Hero” award instead of Morgan. When Morgan protested, he was told that he had not risked as much as the white man had because he had safety equipment.
Such was the extent of racial segregation during the Jim Crow era. The son of former slaves, Morgan was born in Claysville, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877. The seventh of 11 children, Morgan spent his early childhood attending school and working on the family farm with his brothers and sisters. He, however, left Kentucky, then still a teenager, and moved north to Cincinnati, Ohio, to find better opportunities.
Morgan’s formal education never took him beyond elementary school, but he hired a teacher to improve his education. In 1895, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he went to work as a sewing machine repairman for a clothing manufacturer.
By 1907, he had opened his shop which made suits, coats, and dresses, all with equipment that Morgan himself had made. In 1914, the Cleveland inventor was awarded two patents for his invention of the gas mask, originally known as the Safety Hood and Smoke Protector.
Morgan would sell the mask nationally and across the world using a marketing strategy to avoid Jim Crow discrimination. In the south, Morgan hired white people, including public safety professionals, to conduct live demonstrations about his invention, according to Thoughtco. Advertisements about the gas mask in newspapers even had to feature white male models.
Soon, many cities began adopting the masks, including New York City. The gas mask, which was used during the rescue operations at the tunnel explosion, was later refined for use by the U.S. Army during World War I in 1921, according to AAREG.
A refined model of the mask, which is used by firefighters today, was also awarded a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety and another gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
In 1920, Morgan began a newspaper business when he established the Cleveland Call but his curiosity and innovativeness did not end there as he came up with other life-saving inventions, including the first stoplight to use a caution signal between red and green lights.
Morgan became one of the first to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for a traffic signal. The patent was granted on November 20, 1923. He also had the invention patented in Great Britain and Canada.
It is documented that his device was used throughout North America until all manual traffic signals were replaced by the automatic red, yellow and green-light traffic signals being used around the world today. Morgan sold the rights to his traffic signal to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000.
He further invented a zig-zag stitching attachment for the manually operated sewing machine and also founded a company that made products such as hair dying ointments and curved-tooth pressing comb, according to Thoughtco.
At the time of his death on August 27, 1963, the prosperous businessman, who would later lose much of his wealth, was still bringing inventions, including working on a self-extinguishing cigarette.
Throughout his lifetime, he had, in the face of discrimination, overcome all odds and come up with remarkable inventions that would impact the lives and safety of people around the world.