Biography of Garrett A. Morgan

Garrett Augustus Morgan (1877-1963) was an entrepreneur and inventor. Is inventions include an electric traffic signal and a gas mask. Morgan's mother, Eliza Reed Morgan, was the daughter of Rev. Garrett Reed, of Claysville Kentucky. His father, Sydney Morgan, a former slave, was the son of Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan, of Morgan's Raiders. Garrett Morgan was born in Claysville, Kentucky on March 4, 1877. At the age of 16, with a sixth grade education, Morgan left Claysville and moved to to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked as a handyman.

Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1895, and the following year he married Madge Nelson, whom he later divorced. He worked for a series of employers in the garment and textile industry, as a custodian, and as a machine adjuster. He devised accessories for sewing machines, including a belt fastener which increases the machines' efficiency.

Morgan opened his own sewing machine sales and repair shop in 1907. The following year, he married Mary Hasek, a Bohemian seamstress. By 1909, Morgan was the proprietor of a thriving clothing manufacturing shop, employing thirty-two workers. In 1912, Morgan received a patent for his gas mask, and together with several prominent Cleveland businessmen, formed the National Safety Device Company to manufacture and market it.

Morgan established the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company in 1913. The company produced a full line of hair care products, centered on G. A. Morgan's Hair Refiner. This was a hair straightening formula that Morgan had discovered while testing solutions to reduce friction on sewing machine needles. He traveled widely through the United States and Mexico selling these products.

In 1920, Morgan founded a newspaper, the Cleveland Call, later to merge into the Cleveland Call and Post. In 1923, he received a patent on the first electric tricolor traffic signal, which he reportedly sold to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000. The same year, Morgan purchased a 121 acre farm, which he converted into the exclusively African American Wakeman Country club.

Morgan suffered financial reverses in the 1930s. In 1943, he was diagnosed with glaucoma, for which he made frequent trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Morgan died on July 27, 1963.

Morgan was a long term member of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Excelsior Lodge of the Masons, and Antioch Baptist Church. He was interested in politics, and once ran for a seat on Cleveland City Council.

Morgan's Safety Helmet, invented in 1912, was initially used by municipal fire departments as smoke protection for firefighters. An improved version, which eventually became a gas mask used in World War I, was sold to the United States government.

The effectiveness of the Safety Helmet was demonstrated during the waterworks crib explosion in Cleveland on July 25, 1916. Morgan led his brother Frank and two other volunteers equipped with Safety Helmets into the tunnel under Lake Erie after two other rescue parties failed to return. They brought out the only two survivors. Newspaper accounts of the event mentioned Morgan's name only in passing, and his presence on the scene was not acknowledged by official accounts and investigations of the accident. Thomas Clancy, one of the volunteers who followed the Morgan brothers into the tunnel, received a medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission for his part in the rescue. Morgan spent years amassing evidence and testimony, trying to get official recognition of his role.

Although Morgan never received the Carnegie Medal for heroism, nor gain recognition as a major inventor, he and his inventions did win awards. For his actions in the waterworks crib explosion, he received a medal from a Cleveland citizens' group led by businessman Victor Sincere, and another from the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. The National Safety Device Company was awarded the First Grand Prize for the Safety Helmet at the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation. Morgan also received a gold medal and an honorary membership from the International Association of Fire Engineers for the same invention. He was given a citation by the Federal government for inventing his traffic signal. Western Reserve University awarded him an honorary degree, and he received honorary membership in the Delta Alpha Lambda chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Morgan received national recognition at the Emancipation Centennial Celebration, held in Chicago, Illinois, a month after his death. In 1967, a plaque in Morgan's memory was placed in Cleveland Public Auditorium. An elementary school in Chicago was named in his honor in 1972. In 1974, his birthplace, Claysville, was renamed Garrett Morgan Place.


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