What do a sewing machine, hair-straightening product, breathing device, friction drive clutch, gas mask, and a traffic light have in common?
They were all invented by African-American inventor Garrett Morgan.
Garrett Augustus Morgan (1877-1963) wasn’t just an inventor, he was a problem-solver with an elementary school education—and the youngest of 11 children. After learning about sewing machines from working in a factory, he patented an improved version and started his own repair business.
His wife, a seamstress, noticed that the high-speed sewing machines scorched wool fabric hairs. He developed a chemical solution to reduce the friction caused by the needle and noticed the hairs of the cloth were straighter. After testing the solution on his dog and then himself, he founded the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company.
In 1914, Morgan patented a breathing device to protect wearers from smoke, gases, and other pollutants. It became the prototype for gas masks used during WWI to protect soldiers from toxic gas used in warfare.
1916, the City of Cleveland was drilling a tunnel under Lake Erie for a fresh water supply. Workers hit a pocket of natural gas, causing a huge explosion and trapping workers underground surrounding be suffocating noxious fumes and dust. Morgan and his brother donned their breathing devices and headed to the tunnel, saving two workers and recovering four bodies before the rescue effort was over. Sadly, Morgan and his brother’s efforts went largely unrecognized.
Undaunted, Morgan continued to focus on problem-solving inventions. As the first Black man in Cleveland to own a car, he tinkered and learned, eventually developing a friction drive clutch. In 1923, after seeing an accident at a dangerous intersection, he patented a traffic signal—the precursor to today’s three-way traffic lights. He acquired patents in the US, Britain, and Canada, but eventually sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000.