STEM History:

Garrett Augustus Morgan Sr. 


Inventor, Businessman, and Community Leader

Birth/Death Dates

March 4, 1877 – July 27, 1963


Garrett Augustus Morgan Sr.’s most notable inventions were a three-way traffic light and a protective smoke hood notably used in a 1916 tunnel construction disaster rescue.

He also discovered and developed a chemical hair-processing and straightening solution and created a successful company called “G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company” based on his hair product inventions. He was active in civic and political advancement of African Americans, especially in Cleveland, Ohio.

Educational Background:

Morgan only received a sixth-grade education (from Branch Elementary School in Claysville, Kentucky). At age 14, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio,in search of work.

Struggles this Inventor Overcame

Following a heroic act by Morgan, who was the first to rush into a tunnel during a rescue mission (see below), Cleveland newspapers and city officials initially ignored the key role he played by providing the equipment that made the rescue possible. It took years for the city to recognize his contributions. The mayor, Harry L. Davis, failed to put Morgan’s name on the list of recommended heroes. City officials requested the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission issue medals to several men involved in the rescue but excluded Morgan. Morgan believed that the omission was racially motivated, and his suspicions were confirmed by Victor M. Sincere of the Bailey Company in his statement to the Citizens Award Committee. “Your deed should serve to help break down the shafts of prejudice with which you struggle. And is sure to be the beacon of light for those that follow you in the battles of life.” Later, in 1917, a group of Cleveland citizens tried to correct the omission by presenting him with a diamond-studded gold medal.

Problems this Inventor Solved

• Traffic Signal: In 1922 Morgan witnessed an accident between a horse-drawn carriage and a car that inspired him to try to prevent future accidents. Police officers handled road signaling at the time. Their method was laborious and less visible to drivers. The only two options they had were “stop” and “go”. This made traffic flow difficult to navigate.

• Smoke Hood: Morgan invented a “safety hood smoke protection device” after seeing firefighters struggling to withstand the suffocating smoke they encountered in the line of duty.

How this inventor changed the world (or at least their corner of it)

• Traffic Signal: Morgan created a folding traffic signal with folding arms with “stop” and “go” written on many signs that would be situated on a post above traffic. The signals could be raised halfway in between to indicate caution moving forward. A traffic attendant would crank the post to signal, and all lanes could be stopped by showing “stop” if needed. A patent for Morgan’s traffic signal was issued in 1923. He later sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000.

• Smoke Hood: Morgan’s smoke hood device used a moist sponge to filter out smoke and cool the air. It took advantage of the fact that smoke and fumes rise to higher positions while leaving a layer of more breathable air below by using an air intake tube that dangled near the floor. The hood used a series of tubes to draw clean air from the lowest level the tubes could extend to. Smoke, being hotter than the air around it, rises, and by drawing air from the ground, the Safety Hood provided the user with a way to perform emergency respiration. He filed for a patent on the device in 1912 and founded the National Safety Device Company in 1914 to market it.

Lasting changes from this inventor’s work or how they trailblazed

Morgan’s smoke hood invention became known nationally when he led a rescue that saved several men’s lives after the July 24, 1916, Waterworks Tunnel explosion in Cleveland, Ohio. Before Morgan arrived, two previous rescue attempts had failed. The attempted rescuers had become victims by entering the tunnel and not returning. Morgan was awoken in the middle of the night and asked to come and bring as many of his Safety Hoods as possible. A rescue team member had seen a demonstration of his device and sent the messenger. He and his brother, Frank, arrived on the scene still wearing their pajamas and brought four Smoke Hoods. Most of the rescuers on the scene were initially skeptical of his device, so he and his brother went into the tunnel along with two other volunteers and succeeded in pulling out two men from the previous rescue attempts. He emerged carrying a victim on his back, and his brother followed just behind with another. Others joined in after his team succeeded and rescued several more. His device was also used to retrieve the bodies of the rescuers who did not survive. Morgan personally made four trips into the tunnel during the rescue, and his health was affected for years afterward by the fumes he encountered there.

Morgan’s safety hood saved many lives while it was in use.