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Garrett Morgan blazed a trail for African-American inventors with his many patents, including those for a hair-straightening product, a breathing device, and an improved sewing machine and traffic signal.
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With only an elementary school education, Garrett Morgan, born in Kentucky on March 4, 1877, began his career as a sewing-machine mechanic. He went on to patent several inventions, including an improved sewing machine and traffic signal, a hair-straightening product, and a respiratory device that would later provide the blueprint for WWI gas masks. The inventor died on August 27, 1963, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Born in Paris, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877, Garrett Morgan was the seventh of 11 children. His mother, Elizabeth (Reed) Morgan, was of Indian and African descent, and the daughter of a Baptist minister. It is uncertain whether Morgan's father was Confederate Colonel John Hunt Morgan or Sydney Morgan, a former slave freed in 1863. Morgan's mixed race heritage would play a part in his business dealings as an adult.
When Morgan was in his mid teens, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to look for work, and found it as a handyman to a wealthy landowner. Although he only completed an elementary school education, Morgan was able to pay for more lessons from a private tutor. But jobs at several sewing-machine factories were to soon capture his imagination and determine his future. Learning the inner workings of the machines and how to fix them, Morgan obtained a patent for an improved sewing machine and opened his own repair business.
Morgan's business was a success, and it enabled him to marry a Bavarian woman named Mary Anne Hassek, and establish himself in Cleveland. (He and his wife would have three sons during their marriage.)
Following the momentum of his business success, Morgan's patented sewing machine would soon pave the way to his financial freedom, albeit in a rather unorthodox way: In 1909, Morgan was working with sewing machines in his newly opened tailoring shop—a business he had opened with wife Mary, who had experience as a seamstress—when he encountered woolen fabric that had been scorched by a sewing-machine needle. It was a common problem at the time, since sewing-machine needles ran at such high speeds. In hopes of alleviating the problem, Morgan experimented with a chemical solution in an effort to reduce friction created by the needle, and subsequently noticed that the hairs of the cloth were straighter.
After trying his solution to good effect on a neighboring dog's fur, Morgan finally tested the concoction on himself. When that worked, he quickly established the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company and sold the cream to African Americans. The company was incredibly successful, bringing Morgan financial security and allowing him to pursue other interests.
In 1914, Morgan patented a breathing device, or "safety hood," providing its wearers with a safer breathing experience in the presence of smoke, gases and other pollutants. Morgan worked hard to market the device, especially to fire departments, often personally demonstrating its reliability in fires. Morgan's breathing device became the prototype and precursor for the gas masks used during World War I, protecting soldiers from toxic gas used in warfare.
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They are among history's most revered black inventors, known for their relentless inquisition, passionate research, impeccable design and, most importantly, their desire to push the envelope. Some of the world's greatest technological and social advancements, including the modern-day gas mask, light bulb and traffic light, owe their origins to black inventors. Did you know that George Washington Carver developed more than 100 products using peanuts? Or that Madam C.J. Walker was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire? Learn more about these inventors, as well as Lonnie G. Johnson, Garrett Morgan, Patricia Bath, Percy Julian and more, at Biography.com.
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When it comes to famous black scientists, George Washington Carver, Mae C. Jemison, and Neil Degrasse Tyson probably come to mind. But do you know about Otis Boykin and how he's helped old hearts beat a little better? And how about Garrett Morgan, whose inventions have kept hair straighter, clothes fitter, and traffic more efficient? Learn more about these famous black scientists and more.
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