By Samuetta Hill Drew | The Birmingham Times
February is Black History Month. Therefore, all the safety articles will spotlight African American inventors and their inventions. Many do not realize that African Americans have always been pioneers when it came to finding solutions to address societal problems. They were visionaries from the beginning of world civilization to their Middle Passage, to their first steps on the land known as America to the present day. Their inventions in rail and traffic safety, chemical and electrical safety, aerospace safety, communication and health greatly improved how we work and live today.
We will focus this week’s article on man who has gained a great deal of attention in recent years – Garrett Morgan. Many students have learned that Morgan patented the directional traffic signal, later changed to three colors, which now directs traffic on most roads and highways around the world. He also invented a safety protective hood that was used by the allied forces in World War I. It served as the prototype for the modern respirator.
We know about his safety inventions, but let’s find out more about the man who was an American entrepreneur, inventor and activist. He was born on March 4, 1877, in Paris, Kentucky to Eliza and Sydney Morgan. His parents had been slaves, but they were freed before his birth. He dropped out of school after the sixth grade, and at age 14 he left his family’s farm and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. He got a job as a handyman and hired a tutor to continue his education.
In 1895 he moved to Cleveland, where he began repairing sewing machines. In 1907 Morgan opened his own sewing equipment and repair shop. After his brief marriage to Madge Nelson, he married a second time to a white woman, Mary Hasek, from Bavaria. The couple started a clothing business that grew to employ more than 30 people.
Morgan’s first notable invention addressed a common problem then with sewing machines. The needles moved up and down so quickly that they often became hot and scorched some fabrics. After experimenting with different liquids, he developed a chemical solution to reduce friction. He later discovered the solution was safe to use for straightening hair and patented the formula. In 1913, Morgan founded the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company to sell the product. The business became very profitable, allowing him time to explore other inventions.
In the early 1910s Morgan shifted his attention to a breathing device that would prevent smoke inhalation. His interest was piqued after a devastating factory fire that killed 146 workers. In 1914 Morgan patented his creation – a hood that went over the head and had a tube attached to it. While the device proved effective, racism negatively impacted its sale, so Morgan hired some white actors to sell the hoods for him.
His traffic light invention was inspired unfortunately by another tragic incident. In the early 1920s, Morgan observed a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage carrying a young child. This type of accident was very common. Looking to solve another societal problem, Morgan invented a traffic light featuring movable arms that directed the traffic to stop, go, or stop in all directions. His invention was not the first, but it controlled traffic better than the others. He patented his traffic light in 1923 and eventually sold the rights to the device to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000. He earned the nickname “the Black Edison.”
He was a longtime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and started a weekly newspaper that addressed the social issues that faced African Americans.
Morgan was just one African American inventor whose intellect, vision, tenacity and inventions helped save lives then and became the prototype for inventions which continue to save lives today. His efforts really help us to Keep an Eye on Safety for decades to come.