Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. was an African-American inventor and community leader. His most notable inventions included a type of protective respiratory hood (or gas mask), a traffic signal, and a hair-straightening chemical. He is renowned for a heroic rescue in 1916 in which he and three others used the safety hood device he had developed to save workers trapped within a water intake tunnel, fifty feet beneath Lake Erie.He is also credited as the first African American in Cleveland, Ohio, to own an automobile.
The first American-made automobiles were introduced to consumers just before the turn of the 20th century, and pedestrians, bicycles, animal-drawn wagons and motor vehicles all had to share the same roads. To deal with the growing problem of traffic accidents, a number of versions of traffic signaling devices began to be developed, starting around 1913.
Morgan had witnessed a serious accident at an intersection, and he invented a traffic control device and applied for a patent on it in 1922. His invention was a hand-cranked mechanical sign system using signs that could be switched relatively easily by a traffic control officer.His device was relatively simple, yet had key additional safety features that many others at the time did not have. In addition to having "stop" and "go" indicators, it had an "all stop" signal that could be used to clear the intersection to allow pedestrians to cross or to stop cross-traffic before signaling a different direction to proceed. It also had a "half mast" warning position to indicate general caution at times when the device operator was not present.In addition to the signs, his device featured lights and warning bells powered by a battery or a connection to a main power source.
Death and Legacy
Morgan began developing glaucoma in 1943, and lost most of his sight as a result. The accomplished inventor died in Cleveland, Ohio, on August 27, 1963, one month before the anniversary reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, an event that he had been looking forward to. Just before his death, Morgan was honored by the U.S. government for his traffic signal invention, and he was eventually restored to his place in history as a hero of the Lake Erie rescue.
Morgan's improved and saved countless lives worldwide, including those of firefighters, soldiers and vehicle operators, with his profound inventions. His work provided the blueprint for many important advancements that came later, and continues to inspire and serve as a basis for research conducted by modern-day inventors and engineers.
At the Emancipation Centennial Celebration in Chicago, Illinois, in August 1963, Morgan was nationally recognized. Although in ill-health, and nearly blind, he continued to work on his inventions; one of his last was a self-extinguishing cigarette, which employed a small plastic pellet filled with water, placed just before the filter.
In the Cleveland, Ohio area, the Garrett A. Morgan Cleveland School of Science and the Garret A. Morgan Water Treatment Plant have been named in his honor. An elementary school in Chicago, Illinois was also named after him.In Prince George's County, Maryland, there is a street named Garrett A. Morgan Boulevard in his honor (formerly Summerfield Boulevard until 2002).
Morgan was included in the 2002 book 100 Greatest African Americans by Molefi Kete Asante.
Morgan was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.