Morgan, Garrett A.

Morgan, Garrett A.

(1877–1963) inventor; born in Paris, Ky. Born into poverty and with only a fifth-grade education, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and worked as a sewing machine mechanic. By 1907 he had a patent for an improved sewing machine and began his own sewing machine business. In 1909 he discovered a substance that straightened hair (temporarily) and by selling it to African-Americans through his own G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company he achieved the financial security to allow him to pursue his other interests. In 1914 he patented his "breathing device," a hood that allowed the wearer to breathe safely in the presence of smoke, gases, and other pollutants. He worked hard to market this device, especially to fire departments, and often himself demonstrated its reliability in fires; in the South, where there was resistance to buying such a device made by an African-American, he demonstrated as an Indian, "Big Chief Mason"; and in a famous tunnel accident in Cleveland in 1916, where he rescued several men, he was denied a medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund. In World War I his hood was adopted and then adapted to serve as a gas mask. He patented his automatic traffic signal (1923) and sold it to the General Electric Company. In the 1920s he also collaborated in starting a newspaper for African-Americans, the Cleveland Call (later the Call and Post). He was also active in the Cleveland Association of Colored Men and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.