Garrett Morgan: “the Black Edison”
A Black History Month post celebrating Garrett Morgan.
Throughout Black History Month in February, we’re sharing a few stories of Black tech pioneers who had an outsized impact on technology and the world as we know it today.
In my opinion, the term “Renaissance man” is a bit overused these days. If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to a person who is skilled in a number of varied fields. It takes its name from the Renaissance period when individuals like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo excelled not only as painters but also in fields like engineering, architecture, philosophy and more. Lately, the term has been applied in situations like “Oh hey, that actor wrote a book. Renaissance man.” For the third installment in our Black History Month series highlighting Black tech pioneers, we’d like to profile a true Renaissance man, inventor, entrepreneur and community leader: Here’s the fascinating story of Garrett Morgan.
Born in 1877 in Claysville, Kentucky, Garrett Augustus Morgan was the son of freed slaves and the seventh of eleven children. He attained only a sixth-grade education before heading north to Cincinnati in search of work — a common story amongst impoverished Black teens, especially coming from the South. Morgan, however, was anything but common. Securing work as a handyman to a landowner, he used his wages to hire a private tutor. In 1895, he moved to Cleveland, and soon his genius became apparent.
Morgan began life in Cleveland sweeping floors at a dry goods company. Teaching himself to repair the sewing machines on site, he soon became the only Black machine adjuster. This wasn’t enough for Morgan, however. On a quest to improve the efficiency and reliability of the machines, he came up with his first invention: a new belt fastener. While he reportedly sold this for relatively little, it was just the appetizer in the invention smorgasbord to come. (Darn it, now I’m hungry. Pardon me while I raid the fridge.)
The rise of “Black Edison” the entrepreneur
Delicious. Where were we? Oh yes. With word of his talent spreading, Garrett Morgan was hired by another company where he met his future wife. Here is where we, unfortunately, must note a recurring theme of Morgan’s story — encountering the overt racism that was prevalent in the early 20th century. As his partner was a white Czech immigrant, they were forced to leave the company when they refused to end their relationship. Thanks to the other recurring theme in Morgan’s life — limitless tenacity — this proved to be a blessing in disguise.
The couple opened a children’s clothing shop, which was followed by the Morgan Skirt Factory. This business would grow to eventually employ as many as 32 workers. Things were going well, to be sure. In fact, according to his granddaughter, Morgan took to referring to himself as “the Black Edison” due to his proficiency in both invention and business pursuits. But fate, and Morgan’s inventive mind, conspired to bring about a far more widespread and lucrative invention. And while this invention had nothing to do with sewing machines, it would have never come to life without them.
G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company
In his quest to improve his sewing machines, Morgan began to search for ways to prevent rapidly moving needles from scorching the fabrics being sewn. He experimented with a variety of lubricating oils and, during one experiment, noticed something interesting. This particular oil caused the fibers of a non-synthetic material cloth to go completely straight. (One version of the incident claims he wiped his hands on the cloth, left without giving it a second thought and then returned to find the hairs straightened. We don’t know if this is how it happened, but dang is it ever a great story.)
He then tested the oil’s efficacy on his neighbor’s dog, then himself. With positive results in both instances, he went on to create the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company. In the early 20th century, demand for a hair straightening product that could be easily used at home was high and his products were wildly successful. Morgan became a wealthy man. However, while not as lucrative, two other innovations he developed around the same time period are considered by many to be his career-defining inventions.
The Morgan Safety Hood
Morgan began to envision this precursor to the gas mask as a result of a keen observation — many of the struggles firefighters faced and unfortunate fatalities in fires were not from the flames themselves, but rather due to smoke inhalation. He knew that deadly carbon monoxide tended to rise, while breathable air would be closer to the ground. He then proceeded to develop his “safety hood” which fed the wearer fresh air through a tube that hung near to the ground. Absorbent material that was soaked before the mask’s use caught harmful particles and cooled the air. A separate valved tube acted as an exhaust. Surely, this revolutionary device immediately sold like hotcakes, right?
Not so much.
Regardless of its life-saving potential, both private buyers and emergency services declined to purchase the mask due to the fact that its inventor and seller was Black.
The solution to this problem came from a most unlikely source. It was another Morgan, but not a relative. Rather, the legendary financier and investment banker J.P. Morgan, who had great respect for his younger namesake, offered a pragmatic solution: remove the inventor’s first name from the product so prospective buyers did not know it was Garrett Morgan’s Safety Hood. Garrett Morgan would then add showmanship to the ruse. For firefighter conventions, he hired a white actor to pose as the inventor while he donned the mask and, in the guise of Native American assistant “Big Chief Mason,” entered a smoke or noxious gas-filled tent to the horror of onlookers. He would then emerge as much as a half-hour later very much alive (and soon to be a bit wealthier thanks to brisk sales).
At no time was the life-saving potential of Morgan’s invention more clearly displayed than in 1916 when workers digging a Cleveland waterworks tunnel hit a pocket of natural gas. The resulting explosion left 11 men dead and many others trapped. A further 11 rescuers died searching for survivors. Finally, the Cleveland Police called Morgan who, with his brother Frank, drove to the lakefront at 3 a.m. in their pajamas. Donning his safety hoods, Garrett and Frank pulled eight men to safety that morning.
When the disaster and ensuing rescue was reported in papers around the nation, the site foreman, emergency services and others were lauded for their bravery. Some were even given awards and salary bonuses. The Morgans were mentioned in passing, painted as incidental to the rescue if mentioned at all. Tom Clancy, a white man who volunteered to assist Morgan in the rescue, was awarded a medal by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, while the inventor, though nominated, was not. Perhaps because in this instance he had risked his life for others, he refused to let this particular injustice go unanswered.
He sent a letter to the Cleveland mayor, who he claims had expressed an intent to ensure Morgan was recognized for his bravery. It read, in part: “The treatment afforded me … is such to make me and the members of my race feel [that you] will not give the colored man a square deal.” Morgan’s granddaughter has also shared a memorable line: “I am not a well-educated man; however, I have a Ph.D. from the school of hard knocks and cruel treatment.” I think we can all agree that, unlike on your Facebook profile, this is an instance where the “school of hard knocks” reference is actually totally badass. Despite all this, Morgan would persevere and again enrich our lives with another world-changing invention.
The three-position traffic signal
As with most of his inventions, this game-changer was a direct result of Morgan’s keen observation skills. In the early 1920s, he witnessed a terrible accident between a car and a horse-drawn carriage at an intersection. He realized the problem lay with the nature of traffic signals at the time, which only consisted of “stop” and “go” signals. As a solution, Morgan developed a signal with an additional “caution” light. This would allow traffic already in the intersection to clear it before other vehicles were given the go-ahead. He patented the invention in 1923.
Perhaps due to his previous experiences, Morgan did not attempt to undertake selling his invention himself. Instead, he sold the patent to General Electric for $40,000. A tidy sum, right? Plot twist: This was the 1920s. Today, that amount would be equivalent to over $600,000. Morgan was now a very wealthy man.
Garrett Morgan prevailed in a time when the odds were stacked against him thanks to an unshakeable belief in himself. As an extremely successful man, he became a community leader that would help other members of his community find a similar belief. He established the Cleveland Call (later the Cleveland Call and Post), a newspaper for African-American readers. He co-founded the Cleveland Association of Colored Men in 1908 and remained in a leadership role when it merged with the local chapter of the NAACP. He donated money to historically Black colleges and universities and even bought 250 acres of land on which he built the rarest of establishments: a country club open to Black people.
Garrett A. Morgan: an American legend
In my humble opinion, the above is not an overstatement. We’ve looked at some brilliant Black tech pioneers, and there are more to come. Morgan excelled during a time where bigotry was not implied but overt. He was one generation removed from slavery. And he brought the world a pair of inventions that undoubtedly saved numerous lives. Today, modern devices directly inspired by those inventions continue to keep us safe on a daily basis. Without a high school education, he excelled as a businessman. And as a community leader and an individual, he inspired African Americans by showing real success was possible.