Garrett Morgan

Before the American Civil War (1861-1865), black inventors in the United States gained little recognition for their ingenuity. This was because they did not have the same civil rights as white people. However, when slavery was abolished at the end of the War, black people were given the right to patent their inventions. Inventors at this time often used their practical, working knowledge of technology to solve problems encountered in everyday life; they then went on to patent their ideas.

Garrett Morgan was a prolific inventor during the early 20th century. He patented two life-saving inventions, the Safety Hood (an early gas mask) and the first three-way traffic signal. He was also an active campaigner for the rights and welfare of black people. This Exhiblet forms part of a series of events at the Science Museum to mark Black History Month in October 2000.

The Science Museums holds many objects similar to those developed by Morgan as well as some modern day equivalents. Most of the documents and patents produced by him are in the collections of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio, USA. Two examples of his inventions can be seen in the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan, USA. These are the original Safety Hood and traffic signal.

Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, USA between 1875 and 1879 (sources vary), the seventh of eleven children. His parents were very likely former slaves and the family lived in poverty. Morgan left home at 14 with only a basic school education but a keen interest in the workings of machines.

In 1895 he moved north to look for work and settled in Cleveland, Ohio in 1901. He spent the first three nights in Cleveland sleeping in a railroad car covered only by newspapers. Morgan learned how to repair sewing machines and found work as a machine adjuster. Eventually, in 1907, he opened his own sewing machine sales and repair business, soon followed by a tailoring shop which made dresses, suits and coats.

Morgan's first invention was made by accident whilst trying to solve another problem. When sewing wool material, the needle of a sewing machine needle worked at such high speed that it often scorched the wool. Morgan experimented at home to find a chemical solution, which could be applied to the needle to reduce this friction. After mixing one solution he wiped his hands on a piece of horsehair cloth and, to his surprise, found that it had turned the curly hairs on the cloth straight.

Intrigued, he tried out the solution on his next-door neighbour's dog, an Airedale with a curly coat. As a result the dog's hair turned straight - and his neighbour barely recognised it. Finally, he cautiously tested the solution on his own hair - and confirmed he had invented the first hair straightening lotion. Morgan thought that such an invention would appeal to black people and he set up a company and marketed it as the G.A. Morgan Refining Cream.

Morgan's other inventions included a woman's hat fastener, an electric curling comb and a pellet to extinguish cigarettes if the smoker fell asleep. However, his most famous inventions are the Safety Hood (an early gas mask) and the first three-way traffic signal.

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