Garrett Morgan

Celebrate Black History

Garrett MorganGarrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. (March 4, 1877 – August 27, 1963) was an African-American inventor. His most notable creations were a type of respiratory protective hood, a traffic signal, and a hair-straightening preparation. He is renowned for a heroic rescue in 1917 at Lake Erie in which he used his hood to save workers trapped in a tunnel system filled with fumes, after other rescue attempts had failed. He is credited as the first African American in Cleveland, Ohio, to own an automobile.

 Born in Paris, Kentucky to Sydney, a former slave and son of Confederate Col. John H. Morgan and Eliza Reed, also a former slave, Morgan moved at the age of fourteen to Cincinnati, Ohio in search of employment. Most of his teenage years were spent working as a handyman for a wealthy Cincinnati landowner. Like many African Americans of his day, he had to quit school at a young age in order to work. However, the teen-aged Morgan was able to hire his own tutor and continued his studies while living in Cincinnati. In 1895, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. In 1916 he helped to found the Cleveland Call newspaper, and subsequently participated in a 1928 merger that created the Call and Post newspaper. He married his first wife, Madge Nelson, in 1896, but that marriage ended in divorce. Word of his skill at fixing things and experimenting spread quickly throughout Cleveland, opening up various opportunities for him. 

The first American-made automobiles were introduced to consumers just before the turn of the 20th century, and pedestrians, bicycles, animal-drawn wagons and motor vehicles all had to share the same roads. Between 1913 and 1921, a number of versions of traffic signaling devices, both mechanical and automated, were patented by various inventors. Of these, only a few saw production or implementation on public roads. Morgan’s device first patented in 1923, was a hand-cranked, manually operated mechanical semaphore signal. His device had two key safety features: having an intermediate “all stop” signal state to give moving traffic time to stop before signaling cross traffic to proceed, and having a “half mast” position to indicate general caution at times when the device operator was not present.

There is no evidence to support the claim that Morgan’s traffic signal was ever put into service. Despite claims on various websites as well as in print that Morgan’s invention was used “throughout North America”, the absence of his signal in 1920s photographs and news articles suggests that it was not installed in large numbers, if at all. Notably, it did not merit a single mention in the book-length historical study by Gordon M. Sessions, which covers a wide variety of devices in tracing the development of traffic-control devices throughout history.

Many of these sources also claim that the patent rights for Morgan’s designs were sold at about that time to General Electric (GE) for $40,000. However, no record of this transaction appears either in the U.S. patent assignment records at the National Archives, the GE historical business records at the Schenectady Museum in New York, or in Morgan’s own legal and business papers at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. Advertisements and photos from the 1920s indicate that GE’s early traffic signal products were of the more modern electric variety, not manually operated semaphores. Several GE patent acquisitions from the early-to-mid 1920s show that the company was investing heavily in solid-state electronic circuitry and automated traffic signaling devices during that time. By the end of 1926, GE had begun experimenting with traffic-controlled systems (as opposed to timer-controlled devices); it is highly implausible that GE would consider investing $40,000 (over $500,000 USD inflation-adjusted to 2011) in a manual, crank-driven signaling device during an era when the company was researching, developing and producing solid-state analog circuitry and actively implementing these technologies into their signals.

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This Day In Black History (Feb. 16): 

1. DISNEYS FIRST LIVE ACTOR BORN (1904-1948) – James Baskett became Disney first live actor playing the part of Uncle Remus in Disney’s “Song of the South” (1945) he would recieve a posthmous Academy Award for this role in 1948 the year of his death.

2. OG RAPPER ICE-T IS BORN (1958) – Rapper/ Actor Tracy Morrow, better known as Ice-T born in Newark, New Jersey. Ice-T is one of the pioneers of the Gangsta Rap genre and was also one of the first actors to make the succesful transition to actor.

3. WILT CHAMBERLIN Eclipses 30,000 POINTS (1972) – On this day in 1972, Wilt Chamberlain hit 30,000 point mark during a game with Phoenix Suns.

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Submitted by:

Dwayne B. Neal – Team N.A.M.E.S.
“Knowledge is power, but ACTION is King!”

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