From the first spark of an idea to concrete invention, the path of every great innovator is paved with “what-ifs.” A prime example of “what-if” thinking is seen in the life and achievements of Garrett A. Morgan, born 137 years ago this month to a former slave in a segregated black section of Paris, Kentucky.
At age 14, Morgan moved to Ohio and worked as a handyman. His knack for tinkering led him to open his own machine repair shop in 1907 and a successful tailoring shop two years later. It was while trying to solve a work problem that Morgan happened upon his first invention.
Exploration can lead to unexpected results, as Morgan found out. The problem? Sewing machine needles created friction that often scorched woolen fabric. What if a chemical solution could reduce friction caused by sewing needles?
While working on a chemical solution to apply to the needles, Morgan wiped his hands on a piece of wiry pony-fur cloth and took a dinner break. Returning his workshop, he noticed that the pony fur was lying flat where he had wiped his hands. He tested the solution on his neighbor’s curly Airedale terrier. When the dog went home with its new straight ‘do, the owner didn’t recognize his pet!
Next, Morgan tried it on his own hair. The result was G. A. Morgan’s Hair Refining Cream, the first human hair straightener. A serendipitous by-product of his efforts to solve a practical problem led to a thriving business, the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company.
THE GAS MASK
In 1911, a disastrous garment factory fire in New York City claimed 146 lives. What if firefighters could enter smoke-filled buildings without danger of suffocation?
This question spurred Morgan to create his best-known invention: the “safety hood,” for which he received Grand Prize at the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in New York City in 1914. His breathing device served as the prototype for gas masks used in World War I.
Morgan became a hero in 1916 when a gas explosion trapped 32 tunnel workers in Cleveland. Toxic fumes prevented rescuers from entering the tunnel, so Morgan was called to the scene. He descended with his safety hood and, after several tense minutes, emerged carrying the first survivor.
Although honored by the citizens of Cleveland and the International Association of Fire Engineers, Morgan was caught in a backlash as the public realized that he was an African-American. Business suffered, particularly in the South, prompting Morgan to hire a white man to act as the inventor during product demonstrations while he acted as a sidekick.
THE THREE-POSITION TRAFFIC SIGNAL
One day Morgan witnessed a serious collision between a horse carriage and a car, whose numbers were increasing on the roads. Existing signals had only stop and go, with no transition phase. What if traffic signals could be set in three positions?
Morgan developed a mechanism that was the precursor of the signal light we use today. It included an all-stop setting to allow pedestrians to cross the street and a half-mast setting could be interpreted as “use caution.” He patented his design in 1923 and sold the rights to the General Electric Company for the considerable sum of $40,000.
Morgan’s curiosity and creativity resulted in numerous other inventions. And his interests went beyond technological innovation:
- Dissatisfied with local media coverage of the African-American community, he started the Cleveland Call, which is still in existence as the Call & Post.
- Concerned about unemployment, public health facilities, safety, sanitation, and housing conditions, Morgan ran (unsuccessfully) for Cleveland City Council.
- He served as treasurer of the Cleveland Association of Colored Men until it merged with the NAACP, in which he remained active for the rest of his life.
- He was looking forward to the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation but died one month before the celebration was to take place. However, he was recognized at the event for his remarkable accomplishments.
With no formal education past elementary school, Garrett Morgan made lasting contributions to the world. How? By applying “what-if” thinking to practical problems while capitalizing on chance and motivated by a robust entrepreneurial spirit.
For more about the influence of personal experience, chance, luck, economics, and diversity on scientific discovery, see our module Scientists and the Scientific Community.
Also, see our module Creativity in Science.
For more on the invention of the gas mask, see the Discovery (Canada) series episode Inventions That Shook the World – 1910s – Part 3/5: The Gas Mask, available on YouTube.
Read more about Garrett Morgan on Biography.com.
Written by Bonnie Denmark
Bonnie Denmark holds an MA in linguistics and teacher certification in English, ESL, and Spanish. She has devoted her professional life to educational and accessibility issues as a computational linguist, multimedia curriculum developer, educator, and writer. She has also worked nationally and internationally as a language instructor, educational technology consultant, and teacher trainer. Bonnie joined the Visionlearning team as a literacy specialist in 2011, assisting the project by developing comprehension aids for science modules and creating other STEM learning materials.