Celebrating Kentucky: Garrett Morgan

by Jenn Shockley |

Kentucky-born inventor Garrett Morgan created not one but two life-saving devices over the course of his prolific career.

Drivers proceed with caution daily because of Garrett Morgan, and most of them are unaware that he’s the person we have to thank.

 

Morgan was born in Claysville, Kentucky, in 1877, the son of two former slaves. His mother was half Native American. He grew up during a time of overriding prejudice and segregation. Despite racial challenges, he eventually became a member of a predominantly black Freemason organization called Prince Hall Freemason fraternal organization. He also became a very successful inventor and is responsible for saving countless lives.

Morgan’s first notable invention was the “smoke hood” in 1912, which he paired with a bag that contained about 15 minutes of breathable oxygen. He promoted this apparatus by traveling around to different venues, strapping the hood on, and entering a teepee filled with smoke. This guerrilla style tactic proved the inventor had complete faith in his invention.

 

Morgan’s invention was really put to the test on July 24, 1916, when his mask was utilized during a Lake Erie underground tunnel explosion. The rescuers were not convinced the device was safe, so the inventor and his brother donned masks themselves and saved several people. Upon seeing this, the rescuers joined in, even using the masks to collect the unfortunate souls who were lost in the tragedy. The mask was refined and utilized in 1917 as a gas mask standard in the U.S. Army. His design was refined over the decades into today’s modern firefighting and military masks.

 

Morgan later went on to create a patented hair straightening comb, hair straightening cream, a hair dye, and some other hair care products under the name G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company.

After witnessing a horrible car accident, he invented a traffic control device. The U.S. Patent Office granted him a patent in 1923 for a traffic signal that had stop, go, and a caution position. The first traffic control device was installed in London, Kentucky.

 

Garrett Morgan is a name we don’t hear often, but we should. He received a gold medal via the International Association of Fire Chiefs for his smoke helmet and, a month after his death in 1963, Morgan received national recognition for his contributions to humanity. The Morgan Cleveland School of Science and the Garret A Morgan Water Treatment Plant in Cleveland, Ohio, are named in his honor, as is Garrett Morgan Elementary School in Lexington, Kentucky.

Head on over to KYforKY.com for more profiles of prominent black Kentuckians.

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