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Garrett Augustus Morgan was born on March 4, 1877 in Paris, Kentucky, the seventh of eleven children to Sydney and Elizabeth Morgan. His parents had previously been slaves, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. At the early age of 14, Morgan decided to travel north to Ohio in the hopes of receiving better education opportunities. During those times, there were better opportunities for blacks in the northern part of the country. Still, Morgan’s formal education never surpassed elementary school. He moved to Cincinnati and then to Cleveland, working as a handyman in order to make ends meet. In Cleveland, he learned the inner workings of the sewing machine and in opened his own sewing machine store in 1907, where he both sold new machines and repaired old ones. In 1908 Morgan married Mary Anne Hassek with whom he later had three sons.
In 1909, Morgan opened a tailoring shop, selling coats, suits and dresses. While working in this shop he came upon a discovery which brought about his first invention. He noticed that the needle of a sewing machine moved with such a high speed that often its friction would scorch the thread of woolen materials. He then set out to develop a liquid that would be a useful polish to the needle, reducing friction. Once, when his wife called him to dinner, he wiped the liquid from his hands onto a piece of pony-fur cloth. When he returned to his workshop, he saw that the fibers on the cloth were now standing straight. He conceived that the fluid had actually straightened the fibers. In order to confirm his theory, he decided to apply some of the fluid to the hair of a neighbor's dog. The fluid straightened the dog's hair so much, that the neighbor, not recognizing his own pet, chased the animal away. Morgan then decided try the fluid on himself, trying small portions of his hair at first, and eventually his entire head. He was successful and had invented the first human-hair straightener. This invention has helped a lot commercially. A lot of today’s media features people with straightened hair. This might not be possible if Garrett Morgan hadn’t made the contributions he did. He marketed the product under the name the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Cream and sold by his G. A. Morgan Refining Company, which became a very successful business.
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Later in 1912, Morgan developed another invention. This invention was much different from his hair straightener. Morgan called it a Safety Hood and patented it as a Breathing Device, but the world would later come to know it as a Gas Mask. The Safety Hood consisted of a hood worn over someone’s head. A tube stemmed from this hood reaching the ground and allowing in clean air. The bottom of the tube was lined with a sponge type material that would help to filter incoming air. Another tube allowed the user to exhale air out of the device. Morgan intended the device to be used in fighting fires. He wanted it to help firemen enter houses thick with smoke and breathe freely for some time.
The National Safety Device Company, of which Morgan was General Manager, was set up to manufacture and sell the device. The Safety Hood was demonstrated at various exhibitions across the country. At the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation, the device won first prize and Morgan was award a gold medal. While demonstrations were good for sales, the true test of the product would come only under real life circumstances.
This test came on July 24, 1916 when an explosion occurred in a tunnel being dug under Lake Erie. The tunnel quickly filled with smoke, dust and poisonous gases, trapping 32 workers underground. The workers were thought lost because at the time there was no known method of safely entering the tunnel and rescuing them. Fortunately someone at the scene had heard of Morgan's invention and ran to call him at his home. Morgan and his brother Frank quickly arrived at the scene, donned the Safety Hood and entered the tunnel. After a heart wrenching delay, Morgan appeared from the tunnel carrying a survivor on his back as did his brother seconds later. The crowd erupted in applause and Morgan and Frank re-entered the tunnel, joined this time by two other men. Even though they were unable to save all of the workers, they were still able to rescue many of the workers who, otherwise, would have died for sure. Reaction to Morgan's Safety Hood and his heroism quickly spread across the city and the country as many newspapers picked up on the story. Morgan received a gold medal from a Cleveland citizens group as well as a medal from the International Association of Fire Engineers, which also made him an honorary member of the association.
Soon, thanks to widespread endorsement, orders came in from fire and police departments all over the country. Unfortunately, many of these orders were canceled when people discovered that Garrett A. Morgan, inventor of a lifesaving device, was lack. It seems that many people would rather face danger and possibly death than rely on a lifesaving device that was created by a black man. Morgan’s race was something that many found hard to accept and many judged the Safety Hood on that rather than its successfulness. This was a challenge that Morgan had to overcome during his life, because of society at the time.
In World War I broke out. The parties of the war used poisonous gases that choke and even blind the victims. Morgan's Safety Hood, now known as the Gas Mask was thus utilized by the United States Army. It helped to save the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers. This is a major impact of Morgan’s Safety Hood. World War I killed many people. Poison gas played a big role in the casualties but, thanks to the Gas Mask, many lives were salvaged.
Even though the profits he received from his Gas Mask were enough for him to live well on, Morgan felt compelled to try and solve the safety problems of those days. One day he witnessed a traffic accident when an automobile collided with a horse and carriage. The driver of the automobile was knocked unconscious and the horse had to be destroyed. This unsettled him and he set out to develop a means of automatically directing traffic. He wanted to do so without the need of a policeman or worker present. He patented an automatic traffic signal which he said could be used in operating the flow of traffic and providing a clear visible indicator for drivers.
Once he was satisfied with his efforts, Morgan sold the rights to his traffic signal to the General Electric Company for approximately $40,000.00 and it became the standard across the country. Today's modern traffic lights are based upon Morgan's original design. This device was influential because it helped to develop modern systems of traffic lights, which in turn aided in prevention of traffic accidents.
At that point, Morgan was honored by many influential people around him, including John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan (after whom he named one of his sons.) Although his successes had brought him status and praise, Morgan never forgot that his fellow Blacks still suffered many injustices and difficulties. His next venture sought to address these obstacles as he started a newspaper called the Cleveland Call. It was later renamed the Call & Post. Morgan also served as treasurer of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, which eventually merged with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also ran as a candidate for Cleveland's City Council.
In his later years, Morgan would develop glaucoma, losing almost 90% of his vision. He died on July 27 of 1963 in Cleveland an honored and accomplished man. Garrett Augustus Morgan underwent several difficulties due to his being African American. Still he managed to make many contributions that have positively affected today’s society and helped to make our world safer.
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• Gibbs, G.R. Black Inventors from Africa to America. 3 Dimensional Publishing Co., 1995.
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