1877 - 1963
Garrett Morgan left his birthplace in Kentucky for the city of Cincinnati at the young age of fourteen. He held only a sixth grade education, so upon securing work he hired a tutor to further his studies. Morgan established himself as a prominent businessman over the years, eventually opening his own business in 1907, selling and repairing sewing machines in the Cleveland area. Within the sewing machine industry, Garrett is credited with inventing a belt fastener for the sewing machine as well as an attachment that created a zig-zag stitch on fabrics. Another business venture included selling a hair straightening solution he discovered by accident. This discovery led to the establishment of G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company. In addition to these inventions, Morgan re-designed the traffic signal to include the cautionary yellow light between the green and red lights, which is still in use today.
Much like today, pollution of water and air was a problem for emerging cities in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. As cities became more populated, the need to find fresh, usable water became critical. Previously, communities relied on water from ponds, rivers and lakes for drinking, watering crops, and sewage disposal. But when faucets stopped producing water as reservoirs dried up, the need for an immediate long term solution was necessary.
In the city of Cleveland, Ohio, sewage waste and pollution from oil refineries and factories had contaminated the shoreline of Lake Erie and rendered the public water supply non usable. The Lake Erie and Cleveland Waterworks Company realized that pure clean water was still available towards the middle of the lake, farther from the dirty shorelines. Between 1893 and 1916 the city began constructing tunnels. Each time they dug, the tunnel reached further and further into the lake, in order to pipe fresh water back into the communities for human consumption.
Although construction of the tunnels brought much needed work to men in the communities, it came at a dangerous price. During construction of the multiple tunnels, there were six disastrous incidents which killed fifty-eight men. Unsafe working conditions including darkness, undetectable pockets of poisonous gas, and soft clay, led to explosions, fires, and cave-ins which ended lives. The final disaster occurred late on July 24, 1916 into the early morning hours of July 25th.
The waterworks company had a team of men working on a tunnel that was fifty feet below the lake bottom. The tunnel was ten feet in diameter and was expected to reach out five miles in order to tap the fresh water found near the lake center. A twelve man crew entered the tunnel, and it is suspected that at some point one member hit a pocket of explosive, poisonous gas with his pick. This accident was fatal for all twelve men. Upon realizing there was a problem, two additional teams entered the tunnel in an attempt to rescue those inside. Ten of those men also perished.
The Cleveland Police department immediately sought the help of Garrett Morgan. Morgan had invented a “safety hood” in 1912, which he patented in 1914. The authorities were hopeful that Morgan could use this hood to avoid the poisonous gas and rescue any survivors. Morgan had originally created this safety hood, which ultimately became the model for the modern day gas mask, for use by firefighters, chemists, and others who needed protection from potentially toxic air. Garrett, along with his brother Frank and two other volunteers, entered the tunnel wearing the safety hoods and were able to successfully rescue two survivors and retrieve four bodies before being stopped by the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Morgan was deemed a hero and was awarded the Medal of Bravery by the City of Cleveland.
Don't be confused by Morgan's success as an inventor. Morgan suffered the same plight as many before him. His inventions could not carry him beyond the gates of white supremacy. Morgan's safety hood was in high demand immediately after the tunnel rescue until patrons realized it was invented by a Black man. At that time that the overwhelming number of orders for the product dried up. Morgan spent his life fighting back. He didn't accept his oppression laying down, in fact, Morgan was instrumental in the establishment of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. This organization was founded for and by Black businessmen to combat racism and improve their social and economic conditions.