Garrett Augustus Morgan


Cleveland Businessman and Inventor


Garrett Augustus Morgan is frequently credited as the inventor of the three-part traffic signal, and his "gas mask" (actually more of a safety hood than a functional mask), but these were only two of his numerous inventions -- and inventions were only a part of his remarkable life. Morgan's initial success was as an early manufacturer and marketer of hair straightening cream (Morgan Hair Refiner), hair dye, and accessories. With the money earned by the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company, Morgan financed a number of other inventions and financial ventures, among them the Morgan Safety Hood and the Morgan Automatic Traffic Signal. But Morgan didn't stop there -- in fact, he continued inventing throughout his life -- one of his last devices, developed in the 1950's, was a self-extinguishing cigarette!

Morgan's first employment in Cleveland was as a sewing-machine repairman, and within a short time he acquired and managed his own shop. It was during this time, or so legend has it, that Morgan wiped his hands, which were covered with a lubricant used for the machines, on a bit of wooly cloth. When he returned to the shop the next day, the cloth was smooth. Interested in replicating this result, he experimented on a neighbor's Airedale dog, whose hair became so smooth that its owner "drove the cur from his house," not recognizing his own pet. Satisfied with his experiment, Morgan tried the same preparation on his own hair, and thus was born G.A. Morgan's Hair Refiner. From this preparation Morgan evolved a wide line of hair products, such that a few years later he could rightly claim to offer "the only complete line of hair preparations in the world."

Click here for images from the packaging of a few of his products -- G.A. Morgan's Hair Pressing Gloss, Morgan's Hair Grower, and Morgan's Hair-Lay-Fine Pommade. Morgan also sold pressing combs and skin bleach, the latter under the trade name Bleecheen Ointment.

Morgan's hair business thrived, but at the same time he was busy marketing the Morgan's American Safety Helmet. The safety helmet proved an enormous success, winning several prizes at international exhibitions. Morgan filed a patent application for this device on August 19, 1912. describing it as an apparatus which could "provide a portable attachment which will enable a fireman to enter a house filled with thick suffocating gasses and smoke and to breathe freely for some time therein, and thereby enable him to perform his duties of saving lives and valuables without danger to himself." Its mechanism was simple: the hood had two tubes which trailed down to the floor, where fresh air could be obtained (assuming that, as in a fire, the fumes to be avoided were warmer or lighter than air); there was no filtration of the air in his first models. A backpack-like air reservoir provided a small amount of unpressurized reserve air.

Morgan demonstrated the hood for numerous fire departments; in the South, he was forced to pose as an "Indian" assistant and hire a white man to pretend to be "Mr. Morgan" in order to sell his product in those Jim Crow times. A later model was marketed for use in World War I (see image), but was not in fact the ancestor of the later, filter-based masks which eventually became a military standard. Mustard gas, alas, was heavier than air, and so Morgan's hood offered little protection against it. It was not, as some have implied, the first of its kind, nor was it the direct ancestor of the filtration-based masks of later years (see Ian Taggart's excellent site dispelling these myths).

Nevertheless, Morgan's safety hood was a significant invention in the field of fire and disaster aid. It was to have its greatest, and most dramatic use in the great Lake Erie Crib Disaster. On July 25,1916, an explosion ripped through a tunnel in the construction "crib" five miles offshore and 200 feet under Lake Erie. More than a dozen men were trapped in the tunnel, which quickly filled with smoke and poisonous gases. Someone at the scene, having heard of Morgan's safety helmet, contacted him. Morgan, still in his pajamas and robe (it was around three in the morning), quickly summoned his brother Frank and a neighbor and rushed to the scene with Morgan hoods. Morgan tested the helmets at the scene, and realized that the pressure down in the tunnel might very well render them of little value, but descended anyway, accompanied by his brother Frank and a man with the (today notable) name of Tom Clancy. Entering the tunnel, the three men descended more then 200 feet into total darkness before finding one of the workers (see picture below):


They dragged him back to the surface and returned to find others. They made several trips until they had saved more than twenty lives. Due to racial prejudice, Morgan's name was not put forward by Cleveland officials for the Carnegie Medal for Heroism, which was awarded to several white men (Clancy among them) who had assisted with the rescue. Nonetheless, a committee of prominent Clevelanders honored Morgan for his bravery, awarding him a solid gold diamond-studded medal. The inscription read, "To Garrett A. Morgan, Our Most honored and Bravest Citizen."

Morgan's traffic signal was perhaps better known than his "safety hood." The legend in this case relates that, after witnessing a horrific accident between a horse-drawn vehicle and an automobile in downtown Cleveland, Morgan was inspired to invent a traffic signal to prevent such accidents. The patent documents show a device based on a mechanical semaphore system not unlike that first used in modern traffic control in London in 1868, and employed in a number of subsequent designs. What was new about Morgan's device was his design to operate it via a crank from one of the street-corners, and the inexpensive design of its manufacture. It was not, however, the ancestor of the modern three-light traffic signal, which had already been developed some years earlier in Detroit. Ian Taggart has an excellent website which dispels the myths, and shows where the Morgan signal fit into the history of such devices.

In later years, Morgan suffered from a variety of health problems which he believed were related to his exposure to toxins present at the crib disaster, but was unsuccessful in his attempts to be compensated by the city. He developed glaucoma, for which he sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic, but by the late 1950's he was nearly blind. Nonetheless, he continued work on his inventions; one of his last was a self-extinguishing cigarette. Garrett Augustus Morgan died in 1963.