Garrett Morgan: Biography & Inventions

Instructor: Rachel Torrens
In this lesson, learn about Garrett Morgan's triumphant professional evolution. Despite facing racial prejudices, he became a lucrative businessman who produced several successful inventions that endure as a testimony to his genius.

The Evolution of Garrett Morgan's Career

Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky on March 4th, 1877. This is a typical start to such a story, but Morgan's story is anything but typical.

Both of Morgan's parents were former slaves. Morgan's mother was of half Native-American descent and half African-American descent. His father was half Caucasian and half African-American. This unique combination would yield a smart little boy with a brownish-skin hue. This little boy divided his time between assisting on the family farm and attending school. Once he had completed the sixth grade, his formal education came to an end.

At the age of 16, Garrett Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, a city that would bring him much wealth and status. He initially found employment in a clothing manufacturing plant. Morgan was fascinated by the machinery, often fixing and improving the equipment. Soon he left the textile factory to start his own business, producing various types of clothing with machines he himself had made. This steady stream of work enabled him to purchase a car, making him the first African-American in all of Cleveland to own a personal automobile!

Garrett Morgan as a young businessman.
Young portrait of Morgan

While working in his new enterprise, Morgan observed that a lubricant (used to maintain machines) yielded interesting results when it came in contact with wool cloth. The lubricant changed the scratchy surface of the wool into a smoother, softer surface. His interest piqued, Morgan tried the lubricant on a dog's fur and then on his own hair. This is how Morgan's Hair Refiner, a product promising smoother, softer hair, came into popularity. Morgan went on to develop other hair and cosmetic products.

The success of these products allowed Morgan to continue to invent and market his inventions. His two most significant inventions were a traffic signal device and a safety hood that enabled firefighters to breathe in smoky conditions.

In later years, Morgan suffered from various ailments, most notably glaucoma that led to near-blindness. At the age of 86, Garrett Morgan passed away, but his legacy as a great African-American inventor endures.

Garrett Morgan's Inventions

Two of Morgan's greatest inventions were:

  1. a traffic signal
  2. a safety hood

Let's look in more detail at each of these useful machines.

A Traffic Signal

According to legend, Morgan's traffic signal was inspired by his witnessing of an accident between a horse-drawn buggy and an automobile. Morgan felt compelled to design a safety-promoting, yet cost-efficient mechanical traffic signal. He sold the rights for this invention to General Electric for $40,000. Morgan's traffic signals were used widely; however, it should be noted that others also invented traffic signals that together have led to the present day three-light traffic signal.

A Safety Hood

Perhaps Morgan's greatest invention was a safety hood which allowed a person to safely enter an area filled with smoke or other fumes. Again inspiration came from observation when Morgan noticed the struggle firefighters had with rescuing victims from inside a smoke-filled place. His hood was a simple design involving tubes that filtered fumes out and pumped cool air into the hood. Later, Morgan's safety hood was adapted for use in World War I.

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