Garrett Morgan overcame rampant racism to invent the smoke hood and refine the traffic signal 

BY REBEKAH OAKES

In the early morning hours of July 25, 1916, Garrett Morgan awoke to the incessant ringing of the telephone. On the line was Cleveland’s police department. There had been a disaster at the new West Side waterworks, and they needed Morgan’s help.

An explosion left a work crew trapped underground, four miles into Lake Erie, buried under hundreds of feet of mud and debris. Two previous rescue parties had succumbed to the natural gas filling the tunnel. Time was quickly running out. 

Within the hour, Morgan and his brother Frank reached the entrance to the tunnel with about 20 of Morgan’s patented safety hoods.

Morgan donned the fabric smoke hood and led the third rescue party down the tunnel. Thanks to his invention, he and the other rescuers found eight survivors in a disaster that took 20 lives.

He was awarded medals for bravery from a Cleveland civic association and the International Association of Fire Engineers but was denied the monetary compensation other rescuers received.

Many fire departments placed new orders for the safety hood. Some Southern cities canceled theirs after learning the inventor was Black.

Today, Garrett Morgan is one of the most well-known African-American inventors of the early 20th century. But he faced pervasive and systemic racism in his professional and personal life. 

Born around 1877, Morgan grew up in the hamlet of Paris, Kentucky. With only six years of schooling, he moved across the Ohio River to Cincinnati at 14.

He moved to Cleveland in 1895, taking a position sweeping floors at a dry goods factory for $5 per week. Morgan evolved from wage worker to entrepreneur and business owner within a decade. 

He took up a position with the H. Black Company, a major manufacturer of women’s suits and cloaks. Morgan designed a belt fastener for sewing machines and sold it for $150. 

Sewing machine improvement also indirectly led to the product that launched his longest-running business venture: the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company that targeted African-American consumers.

It was through the garment industry that Morgan met Mary Hasek. The 1900 census listed Mary as a sewer in a tailor shop. Sometime prior to 1908, Garrett and Mary fell in love. 

But Mary was white.

According to their granddaughter, Sandra Morgan, his employer gave him an ultimatum: end his relationship with Mary or be fired. He quit, and Mary soon followed suit. After they married, Mary’s father petitioned the Catholic bishop and had her excommunicated from the Catholic church. Her siblings had to visit her in secret to maintain a relationship. 

In the early 1920s, Morgan was driving with two of his young sons in the car. The Morgans witnessed a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn cart at an intersection, resulting in a young girl being ejected from the carriage and an injured horse needing to be humanely euthanized in the street.

Morgan turned his attention to preventing incidents like this from happening.

On November 20, 1923, he was granted a patent for his improved traffic signal. Made up of movable arms that could be adjusted with a hand-crank, the signal could be maneuvered into different positions to indicate if traffic (vehicular and pedestrian) should “stop” or “go” from a given direction. It also contained a step in-between, which would stop traffic in all directions, clearing an intersection.

For the entire story, see uspto.gov/learning-and-resources/journeys-innovation.