Meet the American who invented the gas mask and the modern traffic signal
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Garrett A. Morgan is emerging as a larger-than-life figure in American history. Finally.
International recognition for the brilliant Cleveland entrepreneur comes a century after his life-saving inventions helped reshape the modern world — from the battlefield to the firehouse to the family road trip.
He possessed a unique humanitarian gift for turning tragedy into life-saving inventions.
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The son of former slaves, Morgan conceived and patented the three-signal traffic control in 1923, after he reportedly witnessed a tragic automobile accident on a Cleveland street corner.
His vision of safer streets now helps control the ebb and flow of millions of automobiles and pedestrians on busy roads all across the globe.
A decade earlier, he patented the first gas mask in response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 garment workers, mostly young women, in New York City in 1911.
He proved the mask’s merits at the risk of his own death during his heroic rescue of trapped tunnel workers following a tragic methane explosion beneath Lake Erie in 1916.
Modern versions of the Morgan breathing device are standard equipment today for firefighters around the world.
Allied troops also relied on gas masks built on Morgan’s patented technology to protect them from chemical attacks during the trench warfare of World War I. Modern versions of the Morgan breathing device are standard equipment today for firefighters around the world.
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“He was an endless inventor. He was an extremely creative and amazing man,” said John Stark Bellamy II, author of the 1995 book “They Died Crawling: And Other Tales of Cleveland Woe,” which chronicles Morgan’s daring exploits in what’s known as the Lake Erie crib disaster.
‘He found solutions’
Twenty-one tunnel workers and would-be rescuers were killed in the methane gas explosion five miles off the coast of Cleveland, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
Morgan, his brother Frank and two other men donned his new gas masks, entered the tunnel and pulled out two survivors and four bodies.
Yet The New York Times and other national newspapers of the day failed to mention Morgan in their recap of the disaster, with racism cited by historians today as the reason for the oversight.
“There’s no question that he was a hero but that he was treated shabbily, too,” Bellamy said.
Morgan is today being recognized for his creative genius, personal bravery and clear position at the sharp end of the fight for equality.
The new short movie, “The Inventor,” is making the film festival circuit this summer. It was honored for “Best Historic Short” at the Manhattan Film Festival last month.
The scientific community recently acknowledged that a Black American, and not a White European, invented the gas mask that Allied troops carried into battle to protect against chemical attacks in World War I.
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“By 1917, a year after the Lake Erie disaster, this type of hood was standard equipment (along with British and French designs) for the U.S. Army during World War I,” Smithsonian reported in February.
“The Smithsonian museum has conceded that a Black American invented the life-saving gas mask, not the Scottish physician [John Scott Haldane] who has been widely credited,” The Times of London noted in May.
“Garrett Morgan saw problems in the world and he found solutions,” filmmaker Cabral Clements told Fox News Digital.
The co-producer of “The Inventor” said he first learned of Morgan’s creative genius while working on a third-grade research project. “His story stuck with me,” he said.
Grandson of a Confederate general
Morgan was born on March 4, 1877, in Paris, Kentucky, with a uniquely American multi-racial background.
The family believes that John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate general known for his daring raids into Union territory — and for his dalliances with women he owned as property — is Morgan’s grandfather.
The inventor’s family is seeking DNA confirmation of their relationship with the general, said Sandra Morgan, Garrett’s granddaughter, to Fox News Digital.
“We’re anxious to know,” said Morgan, a Kent State University business development executive.
Gen. Morgan’s attack on Salenville, Ohio, in late July 1863 — just weeks after the rebel defeat at Gettysburg, Pa. — marked the northernmost advance of Confederate forces during the Civil War.
Morgan landed a job in the garment industry, inventing — among other things — a zigzag stitch pattern for sewing machines.
He was killed in battle in Greenville, Tenn., on Sept. 4, 1864. Sydney Morgan — the general’s son and father of the inventor — was freed after the cavalry officer’s death.
Sydney married another former slave, Eliza Reed, sometime after the war. They were both of mixed-race descent (including Native American for Reed), according to the most current family knowledge, said Sandra Morgan.
“They were not farmhands. They lived in the city,” meaning Lexington, Ky., she said. “They were urbanites. They had exposure to many different things. Sydney couldn’t read or write, I don’t believe. But he had city smarts.”
Garrett A. Morgan, the seventh of their 11 children, carried those smarts with him when he ventured north across the Ohio River, making his way to Cleveland around 1895.
He proved adept at business with an incredible mechanical aptitude, despite possessing only a fifth- or sixth-grade level education.
He landed a job in the garment industry, inventing among other things a zigzag stitch pattern for sewing machines. He soon stopped working for others, opening his own sewing store and then a hair products company, G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Co.
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It stayed in business until 1976, the family said.
He also became active in civic affairs, especially those championing African-American success. He helped found the Cleveland Association of Colored Men in 1908 and the all-Black Wakeman Country Club, on land he purchased in 1923, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
Morgan became active in civic affairs, especially those that championed African-American success.
He married Mary, a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic.
The mixed-race family felt the sting of public prejudice: Mary was ex-communicated from the Catholic Church by the local bishop for marrying a Black man, Sandra Morgan said. But the couple forged a formidable partnership.
The couple owned a hugely successful ladies’ clothing store, which employed up to 32 people, according to family history.
After reading about the horror of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Garrett Morgan set about creating a mask to help rescue workers breath safely amid toxic conditions. Many of the 146 who were killed in the New York City fire died of smoke inhalation.
He filed a patent for his “breathing device” in 1912, and received approval in 1914
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He struggled to sell the mask, however. He even enlisted a White friend to lead sales calls, hoping the color of his skin would make it an easier sell.
The business was never as successful as it could have been, Sandra Morgan told Fox News Digital.
“He was an endless inventor … an extremely creative and amazing man.”
War in Europe exploded in August 1914, just four months after Morgan received his patent. He lent his technology to the U.S. military and its allies to combat the horrific gas attacks of World War I.
“With a few slight modifications [the masks] will withstand chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas,” Garrett Morgan — in the dramatized story of his life portrayed in the new film “The Inventors” — tells his brother Frank.
The movie is “a reminder that Black American contributions to this country have been hugely consequential,” co-producer Philip Musey told Fox News Digital.
A man meets his moment
The knock on the door came before sunrise on the morning of July 25, 1916.
There was a terrible explosion the night before at the Lake Erie crib, an offshore base where tunnel workers lived while digging beneath the lake bed to bring fresh water into Cleveland.
The blast at 9:22 p.m. “was so powerful that it smashed and hurled the heavy concrete tunnel sections around, killing and burying the crew in a fiery holocaust of flame and dirt,” Bellamy wrote in his book, “They Died Crawling.”
In all, 21 men — both tunnel workers and rescuers — were killed.
Authorities were desperate to find a way to get into the tunnel safely and search for survivors and bodies. One official recalled that Cleveland inventor Morgan had been shopping a breathing device around to fire departments.
“He rustled his brother Frank,” Sandra Morgan told Smithsonian. “They threw a bunch of gas masks in the car — remember, they were selling these things — and in their pajamas, drove down to the lakefront.”
The Morgan brothers plus two volunteers donned the masks and descended into the hole.
“Goodbye,” Cleveland Mayor Harry Davis said to Morgan — “so doubtful was he of the helmet’s effectiveness,” as Bellamy noted in his book.
But the mask was brilliantly effective.
The national media soaked up the story — yet they failed to mention the real hero of the Lake Erie crib disaster.
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“The mayor purposely left Morgan out of the story of the rescue because he was Black.” That’s the belief of Scott O’Con of Tours of Cleveland, who includes tales of Morgan’s achievements in his guided trips around the city.
“It took years for the city to actually recognize Morgan for his heroic efforts that day,” O’Con told Fox News Digital.
Four rescue workers received medals from the Carnegie Hero Fund for their efforts that day, said O’Con. Morgan was not among them.
“He risked his life to save those men and he suffered ill effects from exposure to methane,” said Bellamy. “The helmets were primitive, he suffered damaged lungs — and he couldn’t get any compensation for it.”
Morgan the man may have been furious at this — but Morgan the inventor was undeterred by the slight.
Safety device for kids and pedestrians
Morgan filed another life-saving patent, for a three-stage traffic signal with a “warning” position, after witnessing a horrifying traffic accident in a Cleveland intersection.
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At the time, traffic signals held only “stop” or “go” positions, creating dangerous conditions for anyone behind the wheel or, even worse, on foot.
He promoted it as a safety device for children and pedestrians.
This time he cashed in nicely, selling the patent to General Electric in 1924 for $40,000 — nearly $700,000 in 2022 dollars.
“On the basis of his safety inventions, I imagine that Garrett A. Morgan was a kind, thoughtful and community-minded individual,” author Monica Kulling told Fox News Digital.
Her 2016 children’s book, “To the Rescue! Garrett Morgan Underground,” chronicles the daring achievement of the Cleveland inventor.
“He was a mechanical genius with an entrepreneurial streak.”
“If I could meet Garrett Morgan, I would give him a big kiss and hug.”
After decades of battling poor health, glaucoma and then near-total blindness in the last years of his life, Garrett A. Morgan died on July 27, 1963.
He was 86 years old.
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He’s buried today alongside wife Mary beneath a simple gravestone at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. “By his deeds he shall be remembered,” says the inscription beneath their names.
Those deeds live on at almost every traffic light around the world and every time a firefighter enters a burning a building. In addition, his gas mask is featured at the Museum of Firefighting Hall of Flame in Phoenix, Ariz.
“If I could meet Garrett Morgan, I would give him a big kiss and hug,” John W. Norman III, a retired FDNY deputy assistant chief, told Smithsonian.
“It’s the greatest invention that a firefighter could ever have.”
Morgan was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005. He is the namesake of the Garrett Morgan School of Leadership & Innovation, a sparkling new public high school in Cleveland; Garrett Morgan Academy, a public high school in Paterson, N.J., and P.S. 132 Garrett A. Morgan Elementary School in Bronx, N.Y.
The Cleveland Call, a newspaper he founded to serve the Black community in 1916, continues to dish out news today to readers in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati as the Cleveland Call & Post.
His achievements are taught in public school social studies courses in Ohio, even if they’re largely unknown around the rest of the country.
His achievements are taught in public school social studies courses in Ohio.
Perhaps most notably, the Morgan family continues to thrive in the Cleveland area. Great-grandson Garrett A. Morgan IV, an Ohio artist, turns 47 this week.
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Garrett A. Morgan “was a complex man, a very creative, very curious man who had a strong sense of the public good,” granddaughter Sandra Morgan said.
“Family was important to him. Community was important to him. He’d be thrilled and very excited to know that he was now being recognized this way.”
To read more stories in this unique “Meet the American Who…” series from Fox News Digital, click here.