Awesome Men Throughout History: Garrett Morgan
There’s been an inexcusable dearth of inventors in my Awesome Men Throughout History column, but fear not! I’m about to fix that by writing about Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr., who invented a whole bunch of stuff and was a fleshly embodiment of awesome manhood.
Morgan was born to former slaves in Paris, Kentucky, a town whose name has to be a cruel joke at the expense of everyone who lives there. It must have been rough, because Morgan moved to Cincinnati when he was fourteen to find work.
That’s worth pausing to think about for a second. When I was fourteen, I was playing Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal Boxing and worrying about zits. When Garrett Morgan was fourteen, the Sega Genesis wasn’t even a distant dream, he probably still had to worry about zits, and he had to find a man’s job in Cincinnati, of all places.
Morgan found work as a handyman for a rich guy and hired a tutor out of his own pocket so he could continue his studies. From there, he moved to Cleveland and got a job as a sewing machine repairman, and word got out that he was really good at fixing things.
He was also good at inventing them, as it turned out. After hearing about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 people, he invented a safety hood and smoke protector system to protect firefighters (and their lungs) from excess smoke inhalation. He was able to sell his gas mask, which is ultimately what his system became, around the country, but often had to hire white actors to pose as its inventor. It always breaks my heart a little to read that sort of thing.
Morgan couldn’t even demonstrate how his invention worked without a disguise, and often pretended to be an Indian from the Walpole Island First Nation in Canada when the time came to show audiences how it worked.
And it did work. In fact, it made national headlines when Garrett and three other people used the mask to save workers after a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie in 1916. In yet another indictment of the times,Cleveland’s newspapers and city officials ignored Morgan’s role in the rescue, and the poor guy went unrecognized for years.
Luckily, he wasn’t unsuccessful. Morgan ended up owning several businesses, including a hair refining company that sold another one of his inventions, a hair straightening cream. His contributions to the city of Cleveland were eventually recognized within his lifetime, and his legacy is that of an intelligent, prominent, and heroic man in his own time. As it should be.
Here’s a fun video about him in case you feel like researching further.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.