By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 22, 2013 – Throughout history, necessity often has served as a powerful agent for those seeking to assuage their needs through inventive, and sometimes, desperate measures.
Garrett Morgan, a poorly educated inventor and entrepreneur, discovered this as he found a necessity for one such invention after previously struggling to find its niche.
Morgan, the son of former slaves, was born in Paris, Ky., on March 4, 1877, and grew up extremely poor with very little education. He had no more than a sixth-grade education, but his natural curiosity and inventive nature led him to try new things despite a lack of formal education.
After moving to Ohio as a young man, Morgan worked as a sewing machine repairman and fixed equipment at a textile factory. His reputation for mechanical aptitude was widespread, and he earned money working in the Cleveland area.
In 1907, Morgan opened a sewing equipment and repair shop. Although he had little education, and still faced the challenges of most African-Americans, he was successful enough to later expand his business, and even to own a car.
While living in Cleveland, Morgan noticed firefighters were having trouble putting out fires and were routinely overcome by smoke. After seeing this repeatedly, he devised a safety hood and secured a patent for the device.
Described as a canvas hood with two tubes, the contraption was held on the back to filter smoke outward while cooling incoming air inside. But Morgan had difficulty selling the practicality of his invention.
Then, in 1916, an explosion in a tunnel being constructed 250 feet under Lake Erie trapped workers inside. According to local accounts, three separate rescue attempts were conducted. Each time, the rescue parties failed to return.
Morgan arrived with his safety hood, but officials refused to enter the tunnel after the failures of previous rescue parties. Undaunted, Morgan and a few volunteers put on the safety hoods and slowly extracted the trapped workers from the tunnel, rescuing 32 in all.
The acclaim from this feat generated publicity for Morgan and his gas mask. After the rescue, Morgan's company received requests from fire departments around the country for the new masks. But even with this success, Morgan continued to struggle selling his invention in the South because of his ethnicity.
The U.S. Army later refined the Morgan gas mask for use during World War I, helping to protect soldiers from poisonous gases and other chemical attacks.
The ambitious inventor also was granted a patent for the mechanical traffic signal on Nov. 20, 1923. He later sold it to General Electric for $40,000, but was recognized by the U.S. government for his invention nearly 40 years later.
Morgan died Aug. 27, 1963, at the age of 86, following years of innovation and experimentation leaving a lasting and creative legacy for African-Americans everywhere.
(Brittainy Joyner of the office of the assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs contributed to this article.)