Garrett Morgan, an American Hero

5 min read

Garrett A. Morgan invented the first intelligent transportation safety device.
His safety inventions saved thousands of lives.

|By Chilton Staff |

When a natural gas explosion asphyxiated tunnel workers and six rescue teams under Lake Erie in 1916, police called Garrett Morgan, inventor of a gas mask, in the middle of the night. He and his brother, Frank, grabbed about 20 masks and hurried to the tunnel. Each donned a mask and then courageously descended into the tunnel.

While moving in the dark, Garrett Morgan’s foot touched something—it was an unconscious man from a prior rescue team. Garrett carried him, and his brother carried another man to the surface. Upon seeing their success, two others joined in the rescue effort. The small group made several rescue trips.

The gas mask was hailed as a success, but initially, neither Garrett Morgan nor his brother were among the rescuers mentioned in many newspapers—or among those honored with medals by city officials.

Eventually, the story emerged nationally, acclaiming Garrett Morgan as a hero. There was great interest in his gas mask, but when it became known that he was a Black man, some canceled their orders. In the South, Morgan resorted to hiring a white man to sell the gas mask while he pretended to be a Native American assistant. Police and fire departments, as well as mining companies across North America, relied on his gas masks. During World War I, his modified gas masks became standard equipment, saving thousands of lives.

Both of Morgan’s parents were enslaved. After emancipation, they farmed in Claysville, Kentucky, a segregated area where there were many sharecroppers. The seventh of 11 children, Morgan was able to have only six years of school. He left home at age 14 to work in Cincinnati, Ohio. There, he took the unusual step of paying a tutor to advance his education. A few years later, he moved to Cleveland, where he prospered due to his inventions and business acumen—even before he invented his gas mask.

It was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where 146 people died and 78 were injured, as well as accounts of the harm suffered by firefighters from smoke, that inspired him to invent a gas mask. That same concern for the safety of others sparked one of his automobile-related inventions.

Garrett Morgan was the first Black person to own an automobile in Cleveland at a time when only the wealthy could afford one. In the early days of the automobile, horsepower was mainly provided by horses; roads were rough, and rules were rare. Even when an intersection had a traffic signal, it had only two modes: stop and go.

After seeing a terrible accident at an intersection, Morgan invented the precursor to the modern stoplight. The genius of his stop sign was to include the caution signal—similar to the yellow light we’re familiar with today. The Institute of Transportation Engineers calls it “an early example of what we know today as intelligent transportation systems.”1 His stop sign invention saved numerous lives.

Many automobile systems are designed to improve safety. ChiltonLibrary can help navigate safety systems. For example, an excerpt from the ChiltonLibrary 2024 Subaru Ascent Eyesight Manual shows a system operation diagram of Subaru’s Pre-Collision Braking System:

STOP here to connect with your Gale representative.

SLOW here to request a free trial.

GO to ChiltonLibrary.

1. “Garrett A. Morgan,” Institute of Transportation Engineers, accessed February 1, 2024.

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